Mobile County health officials want cities to go smoke-free

BY RENA HAVNER PHILIPS, PRESS-REGISTER

MOBILE COUNTY HEALTH OFFICIALS WANT MORE LOCAL CITIES TO BAN SMOKING IN RESTAURANTS, BARS AND OTHER PUBLIC PLACES. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Mobile County Health Department and other local agencies are launching a two-year campaign to try to encourage nine local municipalities, including Mobile, to prohibit smoking in public places.

That would include restaurants, bars, hotels, shopping malls and other facilities.

“We’re not saying that you can’t smoke,” said the health department’s Missy Wilson, who is administering the grant. “We’re saying we don’t want to breathe your smoke.”

According the health department:

  • 22 percent of Alabamians smoke, but that number is slightly higher in Mobile County.
  • Second-hand smoke is the third most preventable cause of death in the United States, causing at least 35,000 deaths each year from heart disease and 3,000 more from lung cancer.
  • Waiters and waitresses who work in restaurants that allow smoking are 50 percent more at-risk to get cancer.
  • And a bartender who pours drinks in a smoky bar for an eight-hour shift experiences the same effects as someone who just smoked three packs of cigarettes.

“It’s not an issue of smokers’ versus non-smokers’ rights,” said Cathy Clothier, a health department educator. “It’s a health issue.”

Health officials here — along with representatives of the American Cancer Society, American Lung Society, Mobile County Medical Society, the University of South Alabama’s Mitchell Cancer Institute and others — are using an ordinance from the city of Auburn as an example.

Dr. Bernard Eichold, who leads the county health department, said officials have been trying to get Mobile and other cities to enact a similar policy for years. “The smaller cities have said we’re not going to do it unless Mobile does.”

Opponents of such legislation say restaurant and bar owners should be able to decide on their own — without government interference — whether to allow smoking.

Mobile Mayor Sam Jones could not be reached for comment Monday. City of Mobile spokeswoman Barbara Drummond said he’s evaluating the issue and doesn’t have an opinion yet on whether the city should enact such a law.

Citronelle and Bayou La Batre have ordinances that prohibit smoking in public places, as do a growing number of municipalities in Baldwin County.

Saraland Mayor Howard Rubenstein said his city allows restaurants and bars to be either completely smoking or completely smoke-free. Rubenstein — who is meeting with health officials today to hear their proposal — said at least 90 percent of restaurants and bars are now smoke-free. He said he doesn’t know yet if he would favor an ordinance like what the health department is proposing, adding that the city council would have to decide.

Eichold said it’s not just small cities that are enacting such legislation. New York and Chicago prohibit smoking in restaurants, bars and public places.

Health officials said they’re beefing up efforts to educate the public on the risk of second-hand smoke with help from a $2.25 million grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control, part of which must be used over the next two years on advertising.

“The grant will help us educate the people and elected officials that smoking in public is a problem,” Eichold said. “The sad part is that the only reason we got the grant money is because we have a problem here in Mobile County.”

The county health department recently began taking points off inspection reports of restaurants and bars that allow smoking. And the department places warning stickers on doors of establishments that allow smoking, warning those who enter that they will be exposed to second-hand smoke.

As a result, several restaurants, including Heroes Sports Bar & Grille in downtown Mobile, T.P. Crockmiers in midtown Mobile and local Waffle Houses, now ban smoking.

In 2004, city of Mobile attorney Jim Rossler wrote an opinion saying that such an ordinance would conflict with Alabama’s Clean Indoor Air Act and would thus be void. That act prohibits smoking in some public places, but allows it in bars.

Since then, former Alabama Attorney General Troy King wrote an opinion saying cities could pass their own laws that are stronger than the Clean Indoor Air Act. And the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in 2009 upheld a Gulf Shores’ smoke-free ordinance after a woman who was fined for smoking in a bar sued the city.

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