Board of Health changes reach of proposed smoking ordinance

By Michelle Williams

Although Thursday’s Board of Health meeting did not end in a vote, it did alter the contours of the town of Amherst’s proposed smoking ordinance.

The committee decided to not include the widely used Amherst Commons in the proposed bylaws, which would ban smoking outside some businesses and at public events, as well as at town parks. The Board voted instead to leave the Commons off the areas where smoking would potentially be banned until it conducts further research on the feasibility of such measures.

On February 25, the Board of Health held an open Town Meeting for community members and business owners to discuss the prospective bill.

After considering the opinions discussed during the open forum meeting, as well as letters sent to the board, the committee decided not to include the Amherst Commons in the bylaws’ provisions.

Maria Bulzacchelli, a member of the Board of Health, questioned if the area was even a plausible site for such policies, stating that, “I wonder if it is even possible to impose this regulation at all.”

Prior to Thursday’s changes, the bylaws had called for outdoor events held at the Amherst Commons to be entirely smoke-free, with the organizers of respective events to be in charge of regulating attendees. The bill would require that four signs be posted around the area stating that smoking would not be permitted. If organizers failed to enforce the non-smoking policies, they would be subject to a $100 fine for the first offense, with higher fines for future offenses reaching $300. The fines would be per event, rather than per offense.

Julie Federman, the health director for the town of Amherst, said such fines were meant to educate the community.

“The fine system, which would be based on the number of offenses, would educate business owners and community members,” she said.

Though not currently in the proposed bylaw, events on the Commons may be smoke-free in future years. Federman called for statistics on the impact smoking has on attendees currently.

“I would like to leave it [the Commons] out and do data collection on current events. For example, we could collect cigarette butts during the Taste of Amherst,” she said.

This decision is considered by some to only postpone the eventual battle.

Terry Franklin, a town of Amherst Meeting Member and representative for the University of Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Committee, felt the decision wasn’t the Board of Health’s to make.

“Such a law is a violation of the First Amendment,” he said.

Bulzacchelli agreed, stating that “I don’t think it is the call of local boards of health to override state laws.”

If the bylaw were to have passed, Franklin said the group planned on taking legal action.

“If the bylaw would have passed, a call to the American Civil Liberties Union would have been made in the morning,” he said.

Public spaces still affected by the current proposed legislation include public playgrounds, public swimming pools and athletic fields during scheduled events. While the bylaw does include these spaces, it will primarily be enforced while children and other community members are using the spaces.

“We don’t want this to affect the man out walking his dog at three in the morning smoking a cigarette.” said David Ahlfeld, chair of the Board of Health.

There was also debate over who should regulate smokers during scheduled athletic events. While some suggested coaches of the sporting events should regulate smoking, others argued against this. Federman argued that most coaches were volunteers, and that the only paid employee was normally the umpire of the little league game.

Other topics discussed included possibly banning smoking in some Amherst housing.

Near the end of the meeting, Federman brought up the possible ban of smoking in all units owned by the Amherst Housing Authority. The ban on smoking within units is being considered due a new health concern referred to as “third-hand smoking.” Federman said that “third-hand smoking causes deposits on walls and interacts with materials in the walls,” explaining that smoking inside the units causes unnecessary expenses to the Amherst Housing Authority.

“Once residents smoke in the apartment, it’s really hard to clean, and is very expensive to do so,” she said.

The Amherst Housing Authority has housing programs for the elderly, family housing, and Section 8 housing. It owns over 10 properties, including the Ann Whalen Apartments, Watson Farms, and units on Tamarack drive. The issue of banning smoking in private residences is planned to be discussed further at the next Board of Health meeting. 

The Board also discussed the decision to close the warming center with the opening of a permanent facility which would provide sleeping quarters to homeless persons. Though the decision to close the warming center was announced Friday, community members attempted to continue the discussion at Thursday’s meeting.

Hwei-Ling Greeney, an active coordinator of soup kitchens in the local area and Select Board member, asked for the rules regarding how food is prepared and given to those in need to be revised.

Currently, the rules of food preparation prevent the warming center from serving prepared food, instead only allowing pre-packaged items such as coffee and yogurt. Greeney asked that the Center be allowed to serve food that is prepared in local church kitchens certified by the Massachusetts Board of Health. Federman felt there was much confusion between the Board of Health and community members, including Greeney, and explained that food prepared in a certified kitchen is allowed to be served.

The warming center is planned to close March 31, with winter weather no longer posing a threat, according to the town of Amherst Web site. In a press release, the town said, “The challenges notwithstanding, the goals of this year’s program have been met. The homeless were provided a safe and comfortable facility during the winter thereby relieving the stress of living outdoors.” A date for the permanent facility for the homeless to open has yet to be set.

Michelle Williams can be reached at [email protected].