COUNTY'S CLEAN-AIR ORDINANCE EXPLAINED

COUNTY'S CLEAN-AIR ORDINANCE EXPLAINED

By David R. King
Doña Ana County Manager

Item: In Fiscal Year 2001-2002, Doña Ana County is responsible for an outlay of more than $17 million in indigent and preventive health funds, the largest amount ever allocated to health care by the county in its 150-year history.

Item: By a 5-0 vote on Jan. 8, 2002, the Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners approved an ordinance that will ban smoking in all public places of employment, including bars, restaurants, offices, day-care centers, nursing homes and truck stops in unincorporated areas of the county.

At first glance, the two items above may not seem to be related, but viewed from a public-health perspective, they most certainly are. Each year, the county is asked to allocate millions of dollars for indigent and preventive health care, and each year it is painfully obvious that the county’s ability to fund the serious health care needs of the area falls far short of the actual need.

By most estimates, the county could – if it were able to do so – quadruple the amount of health care funding it provides and still not meet the need. Clearly, the answer lies as much in identifying funding as in minimizing need on an annual basis. We believe the smoke-free ordinance is a giant step in that direction.

By eliminating smoking in places of employment in the county’s unincorporated areas, the county eliminates both potent direct and indirect toxins that are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year in the United States. While two incorporated areas within the county (Las Cruces and Mesilla) have similar ordinances, we are hopeful that Sunland Park and Hatch also will follow suit. Each year, hundreds of residents of all four incorporated areas apply for and qualify for indigent hospital care or clinic treatment for which the county foots the bill.

The new non-smoking ordinance will take effect Feb. 14, 2002, and will be enforced both by codes officials and deputies of the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department. The ordinance also allows civilian complaints related to violations to be brought forward with a guarantee of non-retaliation.

Fines for non-compliance will be up to $300 per violation. Both smokers and establishments that permit smoking can receive citations and be fined. Some of the county’s critics have framed this issue as one of imposing on the rights of businesses and individuals to make individual and corporate choices.

We adamantly disagree. This is a public health issue, and the hard fact is that smoking in a public place is not a right. It is, rather, a public health hazard, the dangers of which are well-documented and the elimination of which is clearly within county government’s mission statement of protecting the health, safety and welfare of its residents.

Just as government rightly regulates that employees of restaurants and bars must wash their hands after using the restroom, and just as government rightly regulates the cleanliness of public kitchens and serving areas, and just as government rightly regulates the living and educational environments of day care centers, nursing homes and schools, so must government take a strong and enforceable stand against the documented dangers of environmental tobacco smoke.

By eliminating tobacco use in public places, the county hopes to create cleaner, healthier public places for all our residents. Further, we hope to reduce the amount of money paid out each year for indigent health care related to the dangers of direct and indirect tobacco use. Simply stated, we can use every dime of our available health-care money for other, legitimate health care needs in our communities.

Through the South Central New Mexico Prevention Coalition and partnerships with other groups, the county has embarked on a public-education campaign to support this progressive new ordinance. As county manager, I’m confident we can make a clear and convincing case for the need to act decisively, even in the face of selected pockets of criticism.