Public speaks out for – and against – proposed smoking ban

Phil Strider spoke of how “wonderful tobacco money” built North Carolina.

Members of the Butler High School D.R.E.A.M. Team – Lauren Gwaltney, Lindsey Brock, Ryan Debo and Adam Pelter – all spoke about protecting children from secondhand smoke and the idea that smoking is cool.

And doctor after doctor stood at a public hearing on a proposed smoking ban delivering the grim statistics directly related to tobacco use.

All of them and a dozen others worked to sway votes that Mecklenburg County commissioners will take Sept. 17 on two proposed ordinances to ban smoking on grounds of all government buildings and all tobacco use at county parks, greenways and golf courses. That would include electronic cigarettes, snuff and chewing tobacco.

Since commissioners also make up the county’s health board, approving the ordinances would extend the ban to municipal government buildings, including those in the city of Charlotte.

Mecklenburg Health Director Marcus Plescia has urged county commissioners to consider the comprehensive ban since he was hired in January. He said tobacco use is the county’s most pressing health concern and wants to see use by Mecklenburg residents cut from 20 to 10 percent by 2020.

The ordinances have been endorsed by the commissioners’ Health and Human Services Committee and park commissioners. They also are supported by the local chapter of the American Heart Association.

Strider, who says he’s not a smoker, spent his two minutes listing all the things that tobacco has brought the state: Duke University, the Duke Endowment, Duke Energy, Charlotte’s banks – “it’s all rooted in wonderful North Carolina tobacco money.”

Tom Kerr, another opponent, called the proposed ordinances “disgraceful and alarming,” adding the state’s tobacco heritage ought to be honored. He said the ordinances “trample on the rights” of the county’s seven municipalities.

But several speakers spoke of relatives who died from cancer or heart attacks because they smoked or breathed secondary smoke. A ban, they said, would help prevent children from taking up the habit.

“We’ve heard from day one about the dangers of cigarettes,” said Gwaltney of the Bulter High D.R.E.A.M. Team. “It is so prominent with our peers, and we need to do something about it.”

Monroe Ridenhour, a smoker, asked commissioners to designate smoking areas in the larger parks. “Some accommodations need to be made,” he said. “They can be away from playgrounds or walking paths.”

Two hours into the meeting, Edward Kim, a nationally acclaimed cancer doctor at the Levine Cancer Institute, told commissioners that since the start of the meeting, 36 people across the country had died from cancer because of smoking or breathing secondhand smoke.

“This is a devastating disease,” Kim said.

Most who spoke support the bans.

The proposals created little controversy, with many smokers already familiar with the attack on tobacco use.

Golfers have complained.

Two weeks ago, a survey of 1,394 golfers who use county courses showed that 66 percent don’t support the ban on golf courses, and nearly 30 percent of those said they’d play elsewhere if the ban is imposed.

The survey by Ratcliffe Golf Services, which manages four of the five county-owned courses, said nearly 60 percent don’t smoke.

Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor said Tuesday in an interview that he’s concerned about commissioners mandating what the municipalities have to do in their own parks.

His town, Taylor said, “is moving in the same direction.” But it doesn’t want to be told by commissioners that Matthews has to ban tobacco use in the parks the town owns and maintains.

“I do think that given the same opportunity, Matthews will probably end up in the same place,” Taylor said. “My concern is that this should be left up to the municipalities – who are closer to the people – to make that decision.”

New look at Eastland Mall

In other commission news, the board’s economic development committee heard an update on efforts to develop Eastland Mall, the once-popular east Charlotte shopping mall that the city of Charlotte bought for $13.2 million and cleared away last year.

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, who chairs the commission’s economic development committee, said the city had asked the county and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to partner in a $50,000 feasibility study to develop options on what can be done with the property.

A plan to build a movie studio there fizzled last year. The new effort is early in the process, Ridenhour said. The study, he said, likely will take the rest of the year.

“They’re looking at what we can do with that space,” Ridenhour said. “Is there some sort of project that we can undertake as a community to use that space effectively, not just for that area of Charlotte, but make it a destination for all residents? The study will determine the best use of the land.”