County gets power to douse smoking

For 10 years, state law on public spaces was unenforceable here

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

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Clark County Public Health is stepping up its enforcement of the state ban on smoking in indoor public places.

The emergence of local hookah lounges and cigar clubs has prompted complaints from the public and is cause for concern among public health officials. As a result, Clark County Public Health worked with the county prosecutor’s office to toughen up its procedure for enforcing the state law.

In December 2005, the Smoking in Public Places law (formerly the Washington Clean Indoor Air Act) went into effect, making it illegal to smoke in all indoor public places and workplaces in Washington. Since then, cigar clubs and hookah lounges have popped up across the state claiming they are private organizations with volunteers, not businesses with employees, and not subject to the state law.

Some county health departments, which were tasked with enforcing the law, have taken action against the establishments in their jurisdictions. Clark County’s prior enforcement procedure didn’t give health officials much leverage when it received complaints about potential violators.

The county’s prior procedure relied largely on businesses’ agreeing to comply with state law. Health officials educated business owners about the law and warned that violations could lead to fines but had no way of actually assessing fines, said Theresa Cross, the county health educator tasked with the enforcement.

“We’re fortunate no businesses challenged it because we had no way to enforce it,” she said.

Now, they do.

The health department crafted a new procedure for investigating complaints and, if necessary, levying fines against violators. The procedure will allow health officials to investigate whether businesses are following the state law and whether entities claiming to operate as private establishments are, in fact, private or if they’re public places violating the state law.

The county board of health — a role filled by the county councilors — gave public health the go-ahead on the procedure at its Dec. 15 meeting.

Clark County Public Health learns of potential violations in one of two ways: a complaint from the public or by observing the violation during a routine health inspection.

Under the new procedure, the health department can file a sworn statement of fact from the complainant. Health officials will then mail a notice of the complaint and information about state law to violators.

Within 30 days, health officials will conduct an unannounced inspection to check for compliance. If no violations are observed, the case is considered resolved but remains open for two years. If another complaint is filed within two years, or if a violation is observed during the inspection, health officials will conduct additional inspections and may ultimately refer the case to the prosecutor’s office, which could impose fines. Those fine amounts have not yet been established.

The new procedure is already being put into action. The health department has received two complaints against one of the local businesses that people in the community have complained about in the past, Cross said.

While the new procedure makes issuing fines a possibility, health officials hope businesses will comply with the law before reaching that point.

“The way we want to do this is really use enforcement as a last resort,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County Public Health director, at last month’s board of health meeting.