BILLINGS – A new rule prohibiting smoking within 20 feet of public entryways, windows or ventilation systems will take effect in Yellowstone County on March 1.
Rule 7, as it’s called, was voted in by the RiverStone Board of Health in December. The rule will also ban the use of e-cigarettes and other vaping devices indoors, putting them under the same restrictions as traditional cigarettes.
“The toll that is taken on society by tobacco products is tremendous,” said Michael Dennis, a member of the RiverStone Board of Health. “Given our responsibility in the arena of public health, we thought it very important to proceed with Rule 7.”
Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths a year in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control. More than 40,000 deaths are a result of secondhand smoke exposure.
“This is nothing revolutionary,” said Dennis. “Restrictions on vaping and stand back rules in front of businesses is taking place all across the country and we want to be progressive and up to date in our public health initiatives.”
Despite the arguments of the health board, there are many who still oppose the new rule. One of the major groups opposed is the Yellowstone Tavern Association.
“The whole thought process behind it is kind of that cradle to grave idea that we’re going to fix your health regardless if you like it or not,” said Corey Welter, a member of the Yellowstone Tavern Association.
Welter said he supports the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act, and was in favor of prohibiting smoking indoors, but says this rule goes too far.
“This affects everybody,” said Welter. “This isn’t just a casino, bar issue. This is a restaurant issue, this is a hotel issue, and this is a grocery store issue. How are you going to tell somebody that they can’t smoke on a public sidewalk?”
For Welter, the biggest issue is enforcement.
According to the health board, enforcement will be a complaint-driven process. To file a complaint, you’ll have to provide specific details like the name and contact information for the business or individual in violation.
Welter said that will unfairly target business owners.
A violation could be someone smoking too close to a business, or just a lack of the proper signage. The first violation will result in a warning, further violations could result in fines and legal action.
“There have not been that many complaints about the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act and I don’t believe that there will be many complaints about this one either,” said Dennis.
Dennis said the hope is that by posting signs and alerting the public to the new rule, smokers will stay back on their own, and enforcement won’t have to be a big issue.
Welter said while he understands the health concerns, pushing smokers out into the street or parking lot isn’t the answer.
“We strategically place our ash trays to where they are away from the doors,” said Welter. “Our windows are sealed as tight, so I personally feel that this ordinance is just a waste of our time and a waste of the counties money.”
The Yellowstone Tavern Association filed a lawsuit against RiverStone Health last week.
For the full text of the rule, click here.
Reporting by Samantha Harrelson for MTN News