Sampson County is one of just 19 counties in the state that does not have formal smoke-free regulations in place for its county buildings. Health director Wanda Robinson wants to change that.
She recently brought the issue up to the Board of Commissioners, who were split on the issue during discussion.
“I’m asking for the possibility of putting in place an ordinance that we are a smoke-free grounds,” said Robinson. “Secondhand smoke is very dangerous. That still is a part of some of these agencies around here, smoking indoors and that sort of thing. I’d like you to consider this. I really feel it would be beneficial.”
N.C. law took effect in 2010 expanding local government’s authority to regulate smoking in government buildings and vehicles, on government grounds and for certain enclosed public places.
There are currently 81 counties in North Carolina that have, through a written regulation, 100 percent smoke-free or tobacco-free government buildings (70 counties have restrictions only on county buildings, while the other 11 have a comprehensive Board of Health rule or county board-approved ordinances in place).
There are 233 municipalities with such regulations. The town of Garland recently became one of those.
Garland last year passed a smoke-free ordinance for buildings, vehicles, grounds and enclosed public places. Autryville, Roseboro and Clinton are all also tobacco-free, as are all local schools and the Sampson Regional Medical Center. The Sampson Community College is also reportedly going the smoke-free route this year as part of its accreditation. The college currently has a 25 feet outside buildings rule.
Robinson wants Sampson’s government to go a similar direction.
“I think if you’re looking at promoting the health of the citizens of Sampson County, this is a good thing to do,”said Robinson.
County survey results taken in January 2013 show that most individual buildings and departments are smoke-free. However, some are not entirely, notably the Sampson County Clerk of Court and Sampson County Emergency Services. Members of the public smoke outside the courthouse building, on the steps and sidewalks, and there is currently no limit as to how far away from the building they need to be. Smoking is allowed in certain areas of Emergency Services.
“The majority of the agencies are already smoke-free,” said Robinson. “It is an unwritten policy. We already have it in place, but we don’t have a written document to say that we have it in place.”
She did say there are a lot of people who take smoke breaks on the County Complex grounds.
“Not only do we need to look at having our grounds smoke-free, but it would be interesting to implement some wellness activities,” said Robinson. Often cessation and wellness program go hand-in-hand with smoke-free and tobacco-free policies.
Some commissioners raised concerns, taking into account Sampson’s tobacco-growing history and what the crop still means to the county.
“We have some large tobacco farmers in Sampson County,” said Commissioner Jarvis McLamb.
Commissioner Albert Kirby said his father was a tobacco farmer. He attested too that it is a big crop in the county, and feelings have evolved over the years.
“We’ve come to a different crossroads in our community. It is a different place now than what it was 50 years ago.” said Kirby. “It is a place, I think, where tobacco farmers and all would understand if there were some type of parameters around (tobacco use). Not taking away anyone’s ability to smoke, but putting in parameters.”
Kirby said he would be for regulations in county buildings that would require employees to go outside, where he would likely have been against such action 10 years ago.
The state regulates smoking in all state-owned buildings, as well as restaurants and bars. Locally, Robinson said, she thought there would be an uproar when those changes took effect, but there wasn’t. Robinson reiterated that the only thing keeping the county from a smoke-free designation is a formal document.
Commissioner Jefferson Strickland took the stance that many departments already embrace a smoke-free atmosphere, with a few exceptions. He said the county board shouldn’t try to fix something that isn’t broken.
“I think our system we have in place right now is working,” said Strickland. “I just don’t see it as being a big problem.”
Chairman Billy Lockamy agreed, but Robinson reminded them that there was no system in place. Many departments simply were smoke-free, but it was not because of a policy that was formally followed but rather a suggestion amongst county staff years ago.
“We don’t have anything in place. Nothing is actually written anywhere,” said Robinson. “If you’re not going to go with the grounds, at least our county buildings should be smoke-free.”
Strickland went down the list of county buildings provided by Robinson, nearly all of which were smoke-free. He asked whether members of the county staff had ever witnessed anyone smoking in county buildings.
They said they did not, however finance officer David Clack said there was “nothing to stop them from walking in and smoking.” They could be asked to leave, but if they were refused, there was little recourse, Clack said.
“Since we already have a policy of no smoking in the buildings, passing an ordinance to support it shouldn’t be a big burden if we just talk about the buildings by themselves,” said Clack. “Since everybody is kind of used to it, it would be a way of giving the people within the offices the authority to actually say ‘the law says you can’t smoke here.’”
Robinson encouraged the board to at least consider adopting such an ordinance for buildings, if nothing else.
“I think it ought to be looked at and examined,” said Kirby. “That is an unwritten policy. What would be the harm in passing an ordinance?”
Strickland said it would be “rubbing it in the farmer’s face.” Kirby said he could understand that, but said the state map does not look good, with Sampson one of the only counties in the Southeastern part of the state with no smoke-free regulations.
“Just because these other counties do it, doesn’t scare me one bit,” Lockamy said. “It doesn’t make any difference to me.”
Strickland said he simply did not see an existing issue with which the county needed to deal.
“I’ve been in and out of government buildings weekly for the last five years — longer than that,” said Strickland. “I don’t see smoking anywhere in the county buildings. And I don’t see any ashtrays anywhere, and that’s a dead-giveaway.”
Commissioner Harry Parker said he wanted such smoke-free regulations against smoking simply because of the adverse health effects to employees, and the associated healthcare costs.
“Secondhand smoke is just as dangerous as smoking,” said Parker. “That’s my feeling.”
While punishments could be part of a policy, Parker said it was not about fines and enforcement. It was rather about having the “teeth” to smoking regulations that a formal policy would bring. Posted signs “would make a world of difference” in serving as a deterrent. Kirby concurred, offering that as a possibility that might not slight farmers and others, but in getting the county to a smoke-free status.
“Maybe if it was something that did not have any kind of punitive aspect to it,” said Kirby, “but sort of a mission statement.”
Robinson said she could draft something for commissioners to consider. No action was taken.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.