After nearly a year of discussions and revisions, a smoke-free ordinance that would officially prohibit smoking in county buildings — permitting it only in designated areas on the grounds and individually-assigned county vehicles, notably sheriff’s patrol cars — was unanimously approved by the Sampson Board of Commissioners this week.
The passed ordinance reads, in part, that “smoking and the use of tobacco products are prohibited in any building owned, leased, or occupied by the county; (and) on county grounds surrounding county buildings, with the exception that smoking and the use of tobacco products is permissible on county grounds in areas designated by the county manager.”
A draft ordinance to prohibit smoking and the use of tobacco products in county grounds and vehicles was first discussed at the board’s planning session in February. The ordinance was amended and presented for information purposes in September and then for consideration in October. The board tabled the ordinance at that time, requesting additional revisions, including that provision of permitting smoking in individually-assigned county cars.
Health director Wanda Robinson reviewed the revisions and the Board of Health recommendations during the commissioners’ meeting this week.
After much discussion, the Board of Health, which reviewed the draft ordinance and proposed revisions at its Nov. 18 meeting, expressed its concern regarding allowing smoking in county-owned vehicles.
Robinson said specific concerns included secondhand smoke, as well as possible allergies and allergic reactions experienced by passengers who may have to ride in the vehicle. The Board of Health also expressed concerns regarding cleaning and maintenance of the vehicles paid for by county and state taxpayer dollars, and possible devaluation of the vehicles due to smoke damage.
“With those things in mind, they recommended that (that section) read, ‘smoking and the use of tobacco products are prohibited in any vehicle owned, leased, or controlled by the county,’ period,” said Robinson. “As in any situation, I do want to stress that you, the county commissioners, have the power to change or modify any section of this ordinance.”
Commissioners ultimately decided to keep the ordinance as they proposed.
According to the new law, smoking will be prohibited “in any vehicle owned, leased, or controlled by the county, with the exception that smoking and the use of tobacco products is permissible in individually assigned vehicles when the only person in the vehicle is the person to whom the vehicle has been assigned.”
Smoking and the use of tobacco products are prohibited on the county grounds surrounding the Sampson County Health Department and the Department of Social Services within 50 feet of those county buildings, with no designated areas for smoking and the use of tobacco products allowed within the 50-foot perimeter. Additionally, the county shall remove all ashtrays and other smoking receptacles from its buildings and grounds except for those in designated smoking areas.
Robinson first brought the issue to the board in February, saying it was more of a formality than anything.
A smoke-free survey, conducted for county government buildings in January 2013, showed that of 18 agencies that responded, 17 reported to be smoke-free. Robinson said the only thing keeping Sampson from a smoke-free designation is a formal document. She encouraged the board to adopt one. She pointed to the many others who had an official ordinance.
State law took effect in 2010 expanding local government authority to regulate smoking in government buildings, grounds and vehicles. And as of early 2013, there were 81 counties in North Carolina that had, through a written regulation, 100 percent smoke-free or tobacco-free government buildings. Sampson was not one of them, prompting Robinson to recommend the county make that move.
Some commissioners initially raised concerns, taking into account Sampson’s tobacco-growing history. Some commissioners also said the county, while it did not have a formal smoking ordinance, should nor try to fix something that isn’t broken. At the same time, commissioners also conceded health benefits from being smoke-free.
Board chairman Jefferson Strickland pushed for individually-assigned vehicles, notably patrol cars, to be excluded from the ordinance.
Kirby said it would be a “tough pill” to swallow for some who have been able to smoke in their patrol cars to suddenly be prohibited from doing so. On the other hand, he said, there could be some whose health could be adversely affected and existing health conditions exacerbated from secondhand smoke.
“From somebody whose had a family member go through COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and actually have lung cancer, I wish that we all could not smoke,” said Kirby. “However, Sampson County being a tobacco county — this is a county where we have a lot of good tobacco farmers — so to get any policy that limits it would be tough for all of us up here, so I can see it both ways.”
Commissioner Harry Parker said a vehicle is a deputy’s “second home away from home.”
“To restrict them from being as comfortable as they can while doing their duties … they’re in there eight hours, 10 hours, 12 hours,” said Parker. “Every time you want to smoke, to have to stop the car and get out, that doesn’t make sense to me.”
“If smoking would keep a deputy calm enough to go out there and protect my family,” added Kirby, “let him smoke his cigarette.”
Commissioner Billy Lockamy made a motion to adopt the ordinance as recommended by the Board of Health, with the exception that operators of individually-assigned vehicles would be permitted to smoke in their vehicles. Parker seconded. The vote was unanimous.
Robinson said she anticipated the ordinance going into effect in February, giving her time to educate employees and others on the new rules. Kirby said he believed adopting an ordinance would send a message that the county was seeking improved health. Strickland agreed.
“I think we’re being very sensitive to our county and to who we represent, and to the needs of others as well,” said Strickland, who thanked Robinson and others for their patience. “When you came forward with this in February, it just wasn’t quite the time for us. I don’t think it would have passed then. I think the time allowed us to do some thinking.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.