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St. Helens right to consider 'smoke-free' designation

The Spotlight’s front-page story last week, titled “St. Helens explores 'smoke-free community' designation,” captured the imagination, enthusiasm and — in many cases — ire of many in the community who frequent the social media website, Facebook.

Indeed, the post on the Spotlight’s Facebook page garnered 83 comments as of our press time Thursday, was shared 52 times and “liked” 83 times.

Even further, the story was reposted on the popular Concerned Citizens of Columbia County group’s Facebook page, where it was liked 47 times and received 407 comments.

The comments ranged from grunts of open hostility and nonsense tying the effort to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), to questions about personal, constitutional rights and well-considered commentary that actually — rarely — addressed the core consideration being raised by the St. Helens City Council: should public spaces, such as parks and other open spaces, be places where tobacco smoking is not allowed?

As one commenter pointed out on the Spotlight’s Facebook page, “I just read the whole article in the Spotlight. In my opinion this has very little chance of passing. You can show up, state your opinion and followup [sic] from there. I see no fascism here. Just the process of democracy taking place.”

It seems that particular commenter was in the minority, however. Based upon our website database and other metric systems, which allow us to measure and track how often stories are accessed, and the substance of many of the comments, many people chose to ignore the story and instead limit their understanding of the proposal to the headline. In some cases, it was clear not even the headline was read, and instead people were just trolling along the Facebook pages and reacting to previous commenters. Welcome to the Age of Information.

To be clear, at this early stage the proposal is simply to explore the designation of “smoke-free community” for the city of St. Helens. One possible result would be the prohibition of smoking at events such as 13 Nights on the River or on the trails at McCormick Park. But even that hasn’t been decided at this point. In fact, nothing has been decided, other than the decision to explore what is possible for reducing or preventing tobacco use in the St. Helens public sphere.

From our point of view, any effort to reduce or eliminate tobacco smoking, especially smoking by kids, is a positive thing. And for those who insist the city is stepping on their personal rights — even though there has never been any discussion about prohibiting smoking on private property, as much as some seem to wish that were true — one could argue that the personal choice of smoking is treading on many people’s rights to inexpensive health care and other public considerations.

Cancer — mouth, lung, etc. — emphysema and other related tobacco-spawned ailments are ultimately being treated at the expense of everyone who pays for health care. In fact, tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable illness and death in the United States, and tobacco use costs an estimated $96.8 billion annually in lost productivity from illness and death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From another perspective, an Oct. 2 article, also published by the CDC, found that prohibiting smoking in publicly subsidized housing would save the public nearly half-a-billion dollars annually. The same study found that, annually, 7,332 people die from lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke, and secondhand smoke is responsible for 33,390 nonsmoker deaths nationally due to heart disease. And, of course, let’s not forget tobacco smoke’s significant contribution to air pollution, or that cigarette butts — the most commonly discarded piece of trash worldwide — leach toxic waste into the environment.

So much for it being a private, personal decision to smoke.

Still, the question — which has yet to be answered — is whether the city of St. Helens should take steps to encourage a smoke-free environmental. Without knowing the details of those actions, we believe any responsible step toward eliminating this significant public health hazard is in the best interest of the community.

To learn more, and to have your voice in this debate heard, please attend the Wednesday, Jan. 21, public forum at City Hall, 265 Strand Street (plaza entrance), St. Helens, in the Council Chambers. The forum starts at 6 p.m.