South Charlotte

Proposed ban rankles town leaders

Matthews Commissioners don’t condone smoking or tobacco use but they also recently made it clear they don’t want county officials telling them how to manage the issue.

Dr. Marcus Plescia, the Mecklenburg County health director, met last week with Matthews commissioners to explain the county board of health’s proposed ban on smoking on all government grounds in Mecklenburg County. That ban covers government buildings and grounds, vehicles and parks in all municipalities. A second proposed county ordinance would prohibit all tobacco use – including electronic cigarettes - in county-owned parks, greenways and golf courses.

In Mecklenburg County, the Board of County Commissioners also serves as the Mecklenburg Board of Health, so the same group will vote on both proposals.

Matthews Commissioner Chris Melton said elected officials in his town should make the town’s rules.

“Suffice it to say most everybody in this room has been touched by cancer,” Melton said. “But this is our town. We own these buildings. We can make our own rules and govern our own citizens, and we don’t need Mecklenburg County doing it for us.”

Pineville Town Administrator Haynes Brigman and Mint Hill Mayor Ted Biggers said their town boards haven’t expressed concerns.

Mecklenburg County Commissioners have scheduled a public hearing for Sept. 2, to give citizens a chance to give their input on the two proposals. Commissioners are expected to vote on the new regulations at the Sept. 17 meeting.

Plescia said the Health Department decided to tackle tobacco use after a countywide community health assessment identified chronic disease as the top health issue. He said many chronic diseases can be traced to tobacco use.

“One in three heart attacks, one in three cancers, and one in five deaths are attributed to cigarette smoking,” Plesccia said. “About 150,000 people in Mecklenburg County are active tobacco users. Tobacco use costs the county about $350 million in medical costs each year.”

He said the proposed regulations would save about 600 lives annually in the county.

Commissioner Kress Query said he doesn’t disagree with the proposed law, but is concerned about the county forcing rules on the towns.

“It’s not a bad law, but it’s bad the way that it is being implemented,” Query said.

Commissioner John Ross agreed.

“As a former smoker and cancer survivor I agree with the intent. But the county making the rules leaves a bad taste in our mouths,” Ross said.

Plescia said he understands the town’s concerns, but the problems with tobacco use don’t stop at town lines.

“It’s a countywide issue and affects everybody and that’s why we have the Board of Health to deal with it. Tobacco use is a major public health issue and dwarfs any other problems we have,” Plescia said.

“Evidence-based studies show if you make it harder for people to smoke, they are less likely to start in the first place, and those that smoke are more likely to quit. Smoke free policies also help those that don’t smoke. After the state passed the smoke free law for bars and restaurants, emergency room visits across the state were reduced by 21 percent.”

Plescia said he and his staff visited all municipalities earlier this summer meeting with managers and mayors to explain the smoking ban and how it would affect their properties. Matthews is the only municipality that asked him to return to give a presentation to their full town board.

Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor said he hopes to continue the dialogue with the county as the process continues to unfold.

“We’ve been challenged during the last two general assembly sessions in Raleigh about local control being taken away from municipalities across the state. No town will say smoking is good, but they need to decide for themselves,” Taylor said.

“I think we will take a formal position on the over-reaching of this. I see us supporting some type of regulation in the future, but it will be our choice as opposed to being mandated by the county.”