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St. Helens explores 'smoke-free community' designation

Public forum scheduled on tobacco use, prevention

Photo Credit: FILE - A public forum will be held on Jan. 21 in St. Helens City Hall to discuss tobacco use in the community and what the city of St. Helens could do to reduce it.There will be a public forum on Wednesday, Jan. 21, for the St. Helens City Council to hear from members of the public and a local “tobacco prevention coordinator” on the prospect of becoming a “smoke-free community.”

Ashley Baggett, the tobacco prevention coordinator with the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County, said she has been invited to address the City Council to discuss how tobacco use affects the community and what steps are available to the city to address it.

“What we've found is that through different policies and ordinances … it translates to reducing either use or exposure to tobacco,” Baggett explained Monday, Dec. 29.

The term “smoke-free community” is somewhat ambiguous.

“The details haven't been defined,” Baggett said. “Based on how they'd like to move forward, that then could be defined in a number of different ways.”

In Massachusetts, the town of Westminster made national headlines last fall when it considered a total ban on the sale of tobacco. The proposal was eventually dropped amid a public outcry.

In Portland, city commissioners are currently considering a recommendation from the Portland Parks Board to ban smoking in all public parks and recreation areas. Smoking is already banned in state parks, although it is allowed on coastal beaches.

The Salem City Council voted early last month to ban smoking on certain public sidewalks — namely those outside Salem Hospital and Willamette University, which have declared themselves smoke-free businesses — creating what Baggett called “a smoke-free corridor.”

“Right now, there isn't anything saying that cities can't regulate tobacco use, except for a tax,” Baggett said.

Authority over taxing tobacco is reserved by the state.

St. Helens City Administrator John Walsh said he invited Baggett to speak after councilors expressed an interest in improving community health.

Asked what actions the council could take, Walsh said, "There's a spectrum of possibilities.”

St. Helens already bans smoking within 10 feet of building entrances, according to Walsh, as well as within 50 feet of athletic, picnic and playground areas and restrooms in city parks.

“You can look at just an expansion of the existing buffers to saying 'no smoking in public' and anything in between,” Walsh said.

When asked about the forum, St. Helens Mayor Randy Peterson said it was scheduled by request of a city councilor.

“I don't know too much about it, to tell you the truth,” Peterson said, adding, “I was pretty surprised about that myself.”

Councilor Susan Conn, whom Peterson said asked for the forum, said the forum was scheduled in response to concerns expressed by city residents about exposure to secondhand smoke.

"It's something I think a lot of municipalities are looking at," said Conn. "Our citizens are concerned, and we're trying to be responsive.”

Conn said she believes the City Council has the authority to ban smoking in public parks and other city properties, as other Oregon cities have done. "I don't know how much further that could go," she said.

"We're just exploring the idea at the request of some of our citizens," Conn continued. "I know it won't be popular with smokers, but they're welcome to attend the forum as well.”

According to a 2013 fact sheet from the Oregon Health Authority that Baggett said she will present at the public forum, about 6,930 Columbia County adults are regular cigarette smokers. That number represents about 18.2 percent of the county's adult population. A more recent report issued by Columbia Pacific CCO, a coordinated care organization that serves Columbia County, pegged the adult cigarette smoking rate last year at 19.2 percent.

Statewide, 18.5 percent of adult Oregonians smoke cigarettes, according to 2012 data from the Oregon Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

The public forum is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. on Jan. 21 in the council chambers, located in St. Helens City Hall at 265 Strand Street, St. Helens. Conn said anyone with an interest in the subject is encouraged to attend and speak.

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