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Public hearing set for St. Lawrence County’s proposed smoking ban

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CANTON - The public will soon have a chance to chime in on a proposed St. Lawrence County law that prohibits smoking on county property, including when individuals are inside their own vehicles.

Despite objections that the law is too far reaching and difficult to enforce, the county Legislature’s Finance Committee voted 11-3 Monday to hold a public hearing to get citizen input on the proposed new law.

The full board is scheduled to vote Sept. 10 on setting the public hearing date for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 17 in the legislative board room, 48 Court St.

The use of tobacco products on all real property owned or leased by the county including county buildings, beach and shoreline areas, playing fields, parks, picnic areas, hiking trails and other recreational areas, would be prohibited under the proposal.

Several legislators said they supported the bulk of the law, but felt banning tobacco in private vehicles is too intrusive and they may be wiling to approve the measure if that portion were removed.

“This brings out the Libertarian side of me,” said Legislature Chair Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk. “I feel this is going further than I can accept. I think a private vehicle is a private vehicle. It’s not my place to tell people how to live.”

First-time violators face a maximum fine of $50, which increases to $100 for additional offenses committed within one year of the prior offense. Any police officer, peace officer or code enforcement official may enforce the law. The proposed law defines tobacco product as cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, snuff, chewing tobacco, dipping tobacco, bidis, snus, dissolvable tobacco products and electronic cigarette cartridges.

Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, said he understands the desire to educate people about the dangers of tobacco, but feels the law is too broad.

“I understand what you’re trying to accomplish,” Mr. Acres said. “It says right on the packages that this stuff is going to kill you. I know your intent, but I don’t want to restrict individual liberties.”

County Public Health Director Susan J. Hathaway said she would rather scrap the entire law than remove the section about private vehicles.

Government already restricts behavior in cars, she said, citing seatbelt and car seat requirements and bans on drinking alcohol and texting.

“There are many areas that government legislates. Government already intervenes,” she said.

It took some time, but the public has accepted smoking bans in restaurants, bars, schools and other public places, she said.

Ms. Hathaway described smoking as the nation’s single biggest health threat and pushed lawmakers to support the measure.

Tobacco use has killed more people than AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined, she said.

Besides cancer, tobacco use causes heart disease and a variety of chronic respiratory illnesses.

“It’s the worst thing you can do for your health,” Ms. Hathaway said. “Have you ever seen someone with oral cancer from chewing tobacco? There are so many miserable diseases people get from tobacco.”

Besides the cost to human life, tobacco use carries a huge financial cost for the public which has to foot the bill for health insurance and medical expenses for smoking-related diseases, she said.

She argued that second-hand smoke impacts non-smokers, including children. Sick days and lost productivity at the workplace are other impacts.

Legislator Stephen M. Putman, D-Canton, said the county’s employee health insurance expenses continue to escalate and if a smoking ban helps bring down medical expenses the Legislature should move forward with the ban.

Having county employees who smoke contribute more toward their health insurance than non smokers could also be considered, he said.

“We pay for their health insurance,” he said. “Every smoker cost taxpayers a ton of money.”

Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-Dekalb, also supported the ban, citing the $19.3 million the county budgeted this year to pay for employee health insurance.

“If we can do anything to discourage smokers, we should do it. I think we have a responsibility,” he said.

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