Get Your (cigarette) Butt out of the Car!

Written by Jeff Johnson on February 23, 2011. Posted in General

Board considers all-out smoking ban on county property (including in your own vehicle)

Last week the County Board heard an update on a plan to institute a total smoking ban on county property (minus county roads).  This would include a ban on smoking in one’s own vehicle if it is on county property.

The county currently has a policy in effect that bans smoking inside of or within 45 feet of any of our many county buildings.  Apparently, some employees and/or visitors are violating that policy and smoking near or even in the doorways of buildings, especially on cold winter days.  I’m told the problem is particularly acute at the downtown Hennepin County Government Center where smokers sometimes crowd a lower level entrance and leave behind cigarette butts and a lasting haze of smoke.

I’m not a smoker (save for an occasional cigar on the golf course).  Frankly, someone who chooses to start smoking knowing what it will eventually do to you is making a pretty stupid choice.

Having said that, I have two problems with this potential policy.

First, barring people from lighting up in their own vehicle is a significant overreach of government.  When I asked at our meeting why we would extend the ban to someone’s car, I was told that if a smoker opens his or her car window a crack, they putting others at risk of second-hand smoke inhalation.  That seems a bit of a stretch, to say the least.

Second, and more importantly to me, is the simple fact that we already have a policy in place that we’re apparently not enforcing.  In fact, there are actually permanent ashtrays outside the Government Center entryways.  My preference would be to remove the ashtrays, put up signs if necessary and enforce the policy we have rather than expanding the policy to an extreme level and spending much more time, effort and money trying to enforce it.

There were several rationales presented in support of this proposed smoking ban, but in reality, I believe there is only one overriding reason for proposing such a significant expansion: Smoking is unhealthy (sometimes deadly) and we want to do whatever we can to help, convince or coerce people to stop.

I appreciate that argument, but government can only go so far in preventing people from making unhealthy choices.  Every one of us makes unhealthy choices that are potentially costly.   I eat lunch out of the vending machine on occasion.  The Twinkie and Cheez-it combo is a particular favorite.  Is there a point where we consider limiting what employees can eat on county property?  I would hope not, but it would be the natural progression.

Bottom line: Informing employees and visitors of this new policy throughout the county and enforcing it will be costly and time-consuming.  We have significant budget issues in the county to address over the coming year; our focus should be there and not elsewhere.

And, by the way, if this does pass and we start sliding down the infamous slippery slope, they’ll have to pry that Twinkie out of my cold, dead hands…

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