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New rules on public puffing 

Durham County has no plans to designate a smoking area at the Transportation Center and other public spaces.

File photo by D.L. Anderson

Durham County has no plans to designate a smoking area at the Transportation Center and other public spaces.

Tobacco Road this area may still be. But starting Aug. 1, smoking tobacco is illegal on sidewalks and trails, at bus stops, parks and other publicly owned property in Durham County.

Unanimously approved by the Durham County Board of Commissioners in February, the new restrictions prohibit the use of tobacco—snuff, cigarettes, pipes, etc.—from most public property.

It's the latest "preventative" gambit in a long-standing campaign by the County Board of Health to reduce the use of tobacco, says Sue McLaurin, the board's chairwoman. "This is another avenue to not just reduce smoking, but to protect the health of the larger, non-smoking public from health risks associated with tobacco," she says.

Still, county officials acknowledge there wasn't a huge public demand for additional smoking prohibitions. Smoking in bars and restaurants has been banned since 2010, when Gov. Beverly Perdue signed legislation making North Carolina the 29th state to pass broad smoking restrictions.

That same year, says health department spokesman Eric Nickens, directors of several county departments, as well as other future tenants of the sparkling, $90 million Human Services Building on East Main Street, approached the board of health about making their new headquarters smoke-free. The proposed restrictions were eventually expanded to cover public property such as bus stops and sidewalks.

County boards of health can set policy that exceeds state regulations in restricting smoking, but only with approval by the County Board of Commissioners. How strenuously the ban will be enforced, however, is uncertain.

Violating the new restrictions is a civil penalty that carries a $50 fine. But the ordinance authorizing the new policy does not specify the county department responsible for enforcing it. It only states that the board of commissioners must approve the department or agency.

Days before the restrictions go into effect, there seems to be some disconnect over which department has been tapped for the job. "In my opinion, it should be law enforcement that does it; I can't think of anyone else who could," says Michael Page, chairman of the County Board of Commissioners.

Asked which department will enforce the ordinance, county Public Information Specialist Dawn Dudley wrote via email that the county's environmental health division, which conducts site inspections of restaurants, hotels and other facilities, will "field complaints." Law enforcement, she says, will "not be involved."

Wherever the responsibility falls, health department spokesman Nickens says that the goal of the new policy isn't to "police the public." The county will spend $75,859 on a campaign to educate county residents about the new restrictions. That includes money for signage at parks, bus stops and other public spaces to warn smokers.

A bit of field research in the days before the restrictions go into effect indicates that not everyone has been paying attention. While waiting for the bus back into downtown Durham from Southpoint mall, Laina Morris, a non-smoker, wonders how the ordinance can be enforced at street-side bus stops without police presence. "You're not gonna stop someone smoking outside without somebody there," she says.

At the Durham Transportation Center, Derek Silva takes drag from a cigarette while waiting on a bus home to East Durham. "If they're not going to let us smoke here waiting for the bus, where are we supposed to go?" he asks.

Come Wednesday, the black cigarette receptacles will be removed from the station. Asked if county officials will designate a smoking area at the transportation center and other public spaces, Nickens says that the county has no plans to do so, at least not in the immediate future.

"Right now, it's about education," he says. "What we're going to try to do is change the social norm. We want it to become the norm for folks to know that they can't smoke here [at regulated sites] and that they need to go somewhere else."

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