SL Police: No manpower to enforce new smoking ban

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Don't expect Storm Lake Police to become anti-smoking stormtroopers any time soon.

"We were contacted by the State of Iowa about enforcement of the new smoking ban, and we stated at that time that we neither have the time or the people to enforce the ban," Public Safety Director Mark Prosser said.

"In my mind, this is truly an unfunded mandate, and it will not be very high on our priority list at all."

Bonnie Mapes, director of the health department's division of tobacco control, said this week that either businesses or people smoking illegally could be fined by local police. She said the health department will oversee the complaint system, but it's up to law enforcement to take further action.

Law enforcement officials across the state were under the impression that the health department would be primarily handing smoking ban complaints, using an 800 number that is to be set up for people to report smoking lawbreakers.

"As we read the information at this time, they can defer to local law enforcement," Prosser said - which could take officers away from patrols and other community safety work.

Preliminary rules from the state seem to put the burden on business operators. They are to put up signs at every entrance, and if someone still smokes, they first are supposed to ask them to stop; if the smoker refuses the businessperson is supposed to stop providing service to them and then can tell them to leave the property if necessary, Prosser said.

If a smoker still won't leave, the business can call police, and the issue could become one of trespassing or other charges.

"If the business asks a person to leave, they need to leave," Prosser said.

Assitant Chief Todd Erskine will be attending a briefing from the Iowa Attorney General's office later this month - likely to include discussions of the smoking ban impact.

Prosser is not certain how effective the legislation will be, without resources to enforce the rules.

"I'm not sure we want our officers very involved with this at all. It presents itself with a variety of problems including customer relations and public relations," Prosser said.

He hopes that businesses are able to step up and prevent smoking, and that citizens are aware of the law and respect it without law enforcement policing it.

Police will continue their efforts in the area of spot checks for illegal sale of tobacco to underage kids, Prosser said, "but as far as specific checks to see who is smoking where, I don't see that happening." Police and sheriff officials around the state are probably reaching the same conclusion - that they don't have the staff or resources to enforce the state's new ban.

"It is not uncommon to address an issue - including important issues - with well-minded legislation, and then realize later that there may have been problems in the details that hadn't been foreseen at the time," Prosser said.

In Storm Lake, the Public Safety Director is particularly concerned about how the ban is to be applied at outdoor public events.

"How is this going to be addressed in our city parks. When we have large concerts and celebrations or activities, how are we supposed to prevent people from smoking? In a large crowd situation, trying to stop them could cause a bigger problem than it solves."

City officials are planning a brainstorming session on how they will have to deal with the smoking ban.

It is possible that they will have to put up signs in all the parks as well as other public places.

"We would at least want to be in compliance with signage regulations - although we are going to need more information to know what we need to do."

The smoking ban is currently scheduled to take effect July 1.

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