Toxic gauntlets: Clear the smoke on tobacco policies

Hood River City Council is right to be notching up its tobacco use policy.

City staff will bring back to council as early as next month a draft resolution stating that the city has adopted a policy of zero tobacco use in city facilities, vehicles, and in the parks.

On Monday the council heard from Belinda Ballah of the Hood River County Prevention program, which has worked tirelessly for the past few years to get jurisdictions to adopt such policies.

She said that while only nine percent of Hood River County residents identify themselves as tobacco users, the lowest county in the state, the number of eighth graders and 11th graders who acknowledge use has trended much higher than it was in 2009 – from 0.9 percent in 2009 among eighth graders to 4.2 in 2014, and among 11th graders from 10. 1 to 13.2 in 2014. (Specifically, the survey asks kids about their use within the last 30 days and is done on alternating years between the two age groups; it should be noted that the eighth-grade rate spiked at 5.2 and 5.3 percent in 2012-13 but dropped last year, while the 11th grade figures have oscillated between 4-5 percent on year to 11-12 percent the next.)

Ballah spoke in favor of House Bill 2546, which would criminalize the sale of nicotine-based devices and products, including e-cigarettes, aka e-pens or “vapes.” The bill is before the House Health Committee this week. Ballah passed around a glass candy jar filled with e-pens and other alluringly-packaged products and accessories that she said are clearly marketed at youths.

“Tobacco companies need a new generation of addicts,” Ballah said.

She said a city policy prohibiting tobacco use in parks will make the city eligible for state or federal funding to pay for new signage. Currently signs say “thank you for not smoking” in city parks; the Port, County and Mt. Hood Town Hall have all adopted non-use policies that, like the cities, would not be subject to enforcement. (The county’s extends to trails and forest areas, Ballah said.) A city policy would not have the force of ordinance behind it, so compliance would be essentially voluntary.

Ballah said the city could consider something like the business cards that county employees pass out to people they see using tobacco, stating the policy. Typically, people comply once they know the policy, Ballah said, adding that she would work with the city on non-binding enforcement efforts and public outreach.

Is smoking in city parks an issue? At times, yes, but generally the air stays free of nicotine; that single-digit smoker percentage bears out at most public events, where often it is the case that you have one smoker out of 100.

But all it takes is one whiff of second-hand smoke to intrude on a picnic or day at the playground. Ballah’s resources are an offer the city should accept.

And that extends to our sidewalks.

Park smoking may not be all that noticeable, but tobacco in commercial areas needs some attention. All too often the 20-foot rule is ignored. That’s the one that says smokers must go outside a 20-foot area around a building entrance, window, or vent. (It’s important to note that the rule is not just doorways.)

The city policy might be modified to say that it supports the state’s 20-foot rule (it used to be 10) and that all merchants or property owners are encouraged to work with applicable agencies (i.e. the Prevention Program and Chamber of Commerce) to promote adherence to the law. According to Americans for Nonsmokers Rights, a “reasonable distance” is 15-25 feet of doorways, operable windows, and air intake vents of smoke free buildings.

Outreach on this issue should also stress that the 20-foot rule should not be literally applied; smokers should maintain a safe distance from the practical access point for a building, not just the entrance itself. That is, the only way to get into some buildings is outside the 20-foot zone and no one should have to run some toxic gauntlet.

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