Council seeking more information from committee before new restrictions vote

After hearing testimony from the public and adding their own thoughts to the discussion, Seymour City Council did not vote Monday night on proposed new restrictions to the city’s existing smoking ordinance.

Instead, the issue was forwarded to the council’s governmental affairs committee for further study. That committee, made up of council members Matt Nicholson, Jim Rebber and Dave Earley, is tasked with making a recommendation at the next council meeting Nov. 27.

Dr. Kenneth Bobb, leader of the grassroots organization Smoke Free Seymour, officially requested the coalition’s proposed changes to the ordinance which already bans smoking from most public places.

The group wants the city to extend that ban to all bars and clubs, including those with private membership, increase the distance where smoking is permitted near a public entrance from 10 feet to 20 feet, make smoking illegal at festivals and other public gatherings of 50 or more people and include all electronic forms of smoking, such as e-cigarettes and vape machines in the restrictions.

What came out of Monday’s discussion was a sense of the council wanting to reach a compromise with smokers and non-smokers.

Councilman Shawn Malone told Bobb it might be better to break up the restrictions instead of taking it all at once.

Malone said he would be in favor of banning smoking from festivals and public gatherings, especially where children are likely to be present, but he doesn’t approve of banning smoking from bars and membership clubs, he said.

“I think we should be mindful of children,” he said. “I don’t think we should be making decisions for adults, especially at privately-owned businesses, as far as how they should run their businesses and if adults are allowed to participate in legal activities.”

The reasoning behind the proposed changes are not to take away people’s right to smoke, but to protect people from exposure to secondhand smoke, Bobb said.

“Secondhand smoke kills,” Bobb, a former smoker, said. “It kills 53,000 Americans prematurely each year. It’s the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States.”

He said the proposed restrictions will help people quit smoking and lead healthier lives, improving the overall health of the community.

In the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings, Jackson County ranks 63 out 92 counties when it comes to health factors, and smoking plays a role in that ranking, he said.

Bobb said the ranking has an effect on attracting new industries and businesses to the area.

“They look at the availability of a healthy workforce and they’re concerned about the cost of health insurance for their employees,” he said.

Seymour needs to “strive for excellence,” when it comes to improving the community, he said.

“I believe if the city council elects to adopt this ordinance, it will send a strong statement that says we care about our citizens, about their general health and how we are proceeding in that direction.”

Rebber voted in favor of the city’s current smoking ordinance back in 2006 but said he can’t agree with the current proposal.

“I was not able to convince myself that someone goes in a private club with no young adults and we say you can’t smoke in there,” he said. “And the same goes for bars. That’s been my biggest problem with it.”

He would vote in favor of banning smoking from outdoor public events like the Oktoberfest, he added. But even with that, he is concerned with how the city will enforce the law.

Bobb said enforcement of the existing smoking ordinance has never been an issue and he doesn’t think the changes would be a problem to enforce either.

“I don’t think anyone has been arrested,” he said. “It’s complaint driven. It’s really kind of self enforcing.”

Councilman Lloyd Hudson said the only proposed restriction he opposes is banning smoking from veterans organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Hudson said he visited both establishments recently and asked members what they thought of the proposed changes. After talking to Jim Tracey, treasurer at the Legion, Hudson said he learned the organization lost $60,000 when it volunteered for a year to go smoke free.

“My feeling is that those guys have been in the service. They’ve been under fire. Some of them have gone through a lot of trauma, and I feel like I don’t want to touch that,” Hudson said. “They served their country and some have been through a lot of trauma and no wonder they smoke.”

Bobb said he doesn’t think businesses would suffer economically if the changes were passed.

“If everybody goes to no smoking, the playing field would be even,” he said. “The only thing that would change is that smokers would have to go outside to smoke.”

Councilman John Reinhart said he too didn’t think the council should be banning a legal activity in a private business.

“It’s a decision (the business owners) have to make,” he said. “We’re a capitalist system and it’s your business. You’ll either make it or you’ll break it.”

Reinhart said he also struggles with trying to enforce the proposed changes at outdoor events and doesn’t think it’s reasonable to ask people to smoke 20 or 25 feet away from a public entrance.

“You might as well say you can’t smoke downtown, because at that distance you’re out in the middle of the road,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I’m still struggling with on it.”

As a reformed smoker, Reinhart said he wishes people wouldn’t smoke.

“I know I feel a whole lot better, but I’m not sure it’s my role to shove the way I feel down everybody else’s throat,” he said.

Councilman Brian D’Arco said his biggest concern is with enforcement. He doesn’t want to see police spend their time responding to reports of people smoking where they shouldn’t.

“They have bigger and better things to do,” he said.

He also brought up a concern that all the factories and businesses that invested money to build smoker areas 10 feet away from entrances back in 2006 will have to invest more money to move or build new ones that are 20 feet away.

As for electronic cigarettes and vaping, D’Arco said many people use that method to try to quit smoking regular cigarettes.

“It’s kind of contradicting what you’re saying,” he told Bobb.

The main reason Smoke Free Seymour wants to see e-cigarettes and vaping included in the restrictions is those devices get kids to start smoking, Bobb said.

Earley said the council doesn’t need to debate the dangers of smoking or secondhand smoke.

“It all boils down to is this an issue we need to enforce through the city council,” he said.

Nicholson said he doesn’t agree with banning smoking from bars and private clubs or increasing the distance where a person can smoke near a public entrance from 10 feet to 20 feet. He also has concerns with banning smoking from outdoor events.

On the vaping issue, he said he doesn’t want to completely ban vaping and the use of e-cigarettes.

“But I agree that if you can’t smoke somewhere, you probably shouldn’t be vaping or using an e-cigarette there,” he said. “But that portion of it would have to be written to exclude vape shops. If you can’t vape in a vape shop, you’ll kill that business, because they sample the products there.”

Nicholson said if the goal behind the changes is to reduce smoking, then council needs to figure out how to do it without “hitting (smokers) over the head with it.”

Steven Buffington, a lifelong Seymour resident and non-smoker, said forcing people to not smoke will never work and the issue shouldn’t be so complex.

“We have laws against cocaine, against a multitude of things, how well is that working in Jackson County to keep people from doing those things?” he asked. “Just because we have rules doesn’t mean that people are going to follow them.

“I think we’re asking a whole lot that can’t actually be accomplished,” he said.

Seymour resident Ed Mead said he hopes the council will vote to “enhance the public health of the community.”

“As a former smoker, I remember how selfish I could be,” he said. “I speak from those good old days and the days nowadays where I’m so pleased to be able to go into the restaurants and not have to breathe in the noxious fumes.

“There are moral responsibilities that we have as individuals as governmental bodies that sometimes have to take into account what’s best for the greater number of people,” he added.

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January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.