Parks, playing fields would be off-limits; health officials seek new youth protections
NORTHAMPTON — Like many other communities across the state, the Northampton Board of Health is considering a proposal for stiffer restrictions on the sale of tobacco products to minors and a ban on smoking at city-owned parks, playgrounds, athletic fields and swimming areas.
The changes aim to protect the health of residents by creating an environment of cleaner air, but also to make it harder for youth to buy tobacco and “nicotine-delivery” products such as electronic cigarettes, said Merridith O’Leary, the city’s director of public health.
Donna Salloom, chairwoman of the Board of Health, said the changes are intended to protect everyone in Northampton, especially children.
“One of the things we know is that secondhand smoke is dangerous,” Salloom said. “If you don’t smoke, you shouldn’t have to be exposed in public places where people gather, particularly children.”
The board has been working for several months to update the city’s tobacco regulations, last amended in 2010, and is set to unveil a series of proposed amendments at a public hearing during its regular meeting at 5 p.m. March 20 in the City Hall hearing room.
“With new science and trends that are occurring, we felt it was time to review the regulations with revisions in mind,” O’Leary said.
The proposed revisions, which Salloom believes are “reasonable and doable,” are based on recommendations from the state Department of Public Health and are in line with changes occurring in many communities statewide.
The board proposes to separate the city’s existing tobacco rules into two sections: one that regulates smoking in workplaces and public places and another that governs the sale of tobacco and nicotine-delivery products.
The changes governing a smoke-free workplace are designed to prohibit smoking or involuntary exposure to vapors from e-cigarettes and other nicotine-delivery products. The proposal expands the list of prohibited smoking areas to include Pulaski, Look, and other parks, athletic fields, playgrounds and swimming areas owned by the city. Smoking would also be banned at private clubs under the new rules. The use of e-cigarettes and smoking medical marijuana is banned wherever smoking is prohibited.
The city already bans smoking in schools and on school grounds and buses, at work and public places, at restaurants and bars, including outdoor seating, indoor sports arenas, health care facilities, tobacco retail shops, nursing homes and public transportation.
Smoking in private homes would remain exempt, though privately owned apartment buildings are allowed to set their own smoking policies. The Northampton Housing Authority, meanwhile, is studying whether to adopt a smoke-free policy, though smoking is still allowed in three of the authority’s five buildings. Smoking is not allowed in all common areas and in two buildings, Forsander and Cahill.
The lone private club in Northampton that would be affected by the changes is the American Legion Post 28 in Bay State Village, where smoking would be banned. Two other clubs, the World War II Club on Conz Street and the Northampton Elks Lodge in Florence, are not private clubs and do not allow smoking on their properties.
The board has yet to set an exact date for when the updated regulations would take effect, though properties owned by the Recreation Department would have to comply by Jan. 1, 2015. Board members originally considered granting a request from Look Park for an extra year to phase in the new rules because the park often books events two years in advance. But the park will accelerate its plan for going smoke-free and no longer needs the extra time, O’Leary said.
She admits that enforcement of the regulations will be a challenge. The Health Department intends to install metal signs in parks and other city-owned recreation areas reminding visitors of the rules, and will rely on the eyes and ears of a regional tobacco coalition, police and staff from the city’s Recreation Department.
Many times, however, the rules will be peer-enforced by people visiting parks or attending sporting events, O’Leary said.
“Hopefully it will be self-enforcing,” she said.
Salloom noted that as smokers become more aware of the rules, they tend to smoke less, especially when they are asked to stop. She said enforcement was a concern when smoking became taboo in the workplace many years ago, yet now “you’d never think about smoking at your desk.”
Fines levied by the Board of Health will be $100 for a first violation, $200 for a second violation and $300 for third and subsequent violations.
A second set of changes would establish stricter rules to prevent the sale of tobacco and nicotine-delivery products to children under 18.
Proposed amendments, which if approved would likely take effect in May, would cap the maximum number of tobacco and nicotine-delivery sales permits the Health Department issues at 34 and ban businesses with pharmacies from selling tobacco products. There are currently 36 such permits, a figure that will drop to 30 once the “institutional pharmacy” ban kicks in. The businesses that will no longer be allowed to sell such products in Northampton are CVS, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Big Y and Stop & Shop, O’Leary said. CVS earlier this month announced its intention to stop selling tobacco products at all of its stores nationwide.
Other amendments include a new rule requiring clerks to ask all customers, regardless of age, for identification prior to selling such products. Under the current regulations, clerks are asked to card anyone who appears to be 27 or younger.
“The policy takes a lot of the questioning of how old someone is out of the equation,” Salloom said.
O’Leary said the Health Department will provide large signs that businesses can place near cash registers instructing customers about the new card policy. Officials hope the new signs will deter purchases by youths and help explain to older customers why they have to show identification.
Retailers will also face stiffer penalties for selling tobacco products to minors, including the elimination of an existing “tolling” provision that wipes away violations after two years of good behavior.
Under current rules, a first violation comes with a $100 fine, a second violation within a two-year period means a $200 fine and a seven-day permit suspension, a third violation within a two-year period triggers a $300 fine and a 30-day permit suspension, and a fourth violation within a two-year period comes with a 90-day permit suspension. The board has discretion to impose its own penalty after a fifth violation within a two-year period, including revocation of a permit.
The proposed changes keep the fines the same, but a business caught in violation of the rules can no longer hit the reset button every two years and the Board of Health would revoke a permit after four violations.
“With the capping of permits, the no-tolling and the ‘We Card All’ initiative, we’re hoping merchants will be more cognizant of not selling to minors,” O’Leary said.
Other changes would ban the sale of tobacco-based blunt wraps and the sale of single cigars or any package of two or more cigars priced at under $5. O’Leary said this regulation is designed to stop the sale of “really cheap” products that tend to be attractive to minors.
There are some exemptions to this rule, including retail tobacco stores, the sale of a single cigar of $2.50 or more and the selling or distributing of cigars for commercial purposes outside Northampton’s boundaries.
“So much of this is about changing culture, changing the norms ... that’s what these regulations do,” Salloom said.