The Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.’s Division of Public Health will start enforcing Public Law 16-46 or the Smoke-Free Air Act of 2008, expanding access to smoke-free environments.
DPH officials, however, assured that they will help businesses conduct compliance training first before imposing the law full time.
The Smoke-Free Air Act of 2008 outlaws smoking in government facilities, schools, and places of employment and public places—a development that was hailed by health advocates, non-smokers, and even smokers who want to quit.
This meant that any person in the vicinity of a government area would have to smoke 25 feet away from the doorway of the building. It also banned smoking in public places including libraries, museums, banks, Laundromats, hotels, motels, public and private educational facilities, elevators, movie houses, health care facilities, and child care and adult care facilities.
The law extends to polling places, buses and taxicabs, restaurants including attached bars, restrooms, lobbies, reception areas, hallways and other common-use areas, supermarkets, retail food outlets, department stores, retail stores, service lines, shopping malls, and sports arenas.
Also falling under public places where smoking is banned are lobbies, hallways, and other common areas in apartment buildings, condominiums, retirement facilities, nursing homes, and other multiple-unit residential facilities.
DPH has taken it upon itself to fully have a smoke-free environment, not only in public areas but business establishments as well.
Utilizing a small sub-award from the University of Hawaii USAPI REACH grant, the Non-Communicable Disease Bureau of the Division of Public Health will begin educating businesses on complying with PL 16-46.
In December, the University of Hawaii, in partnership with the NCD Bureau, hired a part-time local project assistant or LPA, Kaitlyn Neises, to fulfill project goals of increasing access to smoke-free environments and healthy food options for 75 percent of the CNMI adult population by 2017.
“Drastically improving compliance with PL 16-46 is crucial to reaching our goal. We’re developing an educational toolkit and will offer free compliance training to businesses before full enforcement is in place and fines are issued. This year, we are focusing on helping bars, poker rooms, and hotel establishments become compliant with the Smoke-Free Air Act,” Neises said.
“Non-compliance with the smoke-free law is a great concern for the community and impedes the Division of Public Health’s mission to achieve optimal health and wellbeing for the people of the CNMI,” said Margarita Aldan, director of Public Health Services. “Increasing access to smoke-free air is a priority.”
In January this year, Neises, along with Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services’ Stanley Santos, surveyed bars, poker rooms, and hotels.
Neises said most of the businesses they surveyed were confused about the smoke-free law and assume that because they have never been fined, they are in compliance.
“There is also a feeling of frustration from private businesses over the lack of education on the law. Overall, businesses surveyed are eager to become compliant with the law, but are unsure of what that means,” Neises said.
Several non-smokers think what DPH is doing is good for the health of the community. Several say that bars are sometimes the worst, with establishments allowing smokers to fill the room with smoke.
“That’s dangerous. Sometimes you’d get a headache. There is no ventilation system in most bars here and having people smoking inside sometimes hurts those inside. It’s about time this is going to happen,” one told Saipan Tribune.
Another said that smoking in public places and getting fined for that is not the smart way to stop people from smoking, saying that if laws like these keep getting created, taking freedom away from them will continue.
Under the law, violators face a fine of up to $200 and completion of a mandatory tobacco prevention and/or cessation course, while owners of places where the violation occurs face a fine of up to $500 and revocation of the business license.
“Educating and empowering private citizens to report violations to a hotline will become an important part of enforcement but it won’t be enough that violations are reported; clear procedures for follow-up must be created to give residents confidence that their concerns are heard,” Neises said.
“Public education will also be an important component of the enforcement effort. Advertisements and educational material targeting CNMI residents will echo the purpose of the Smoke-Free Air Act: ‘to guarantee the right of nonsmokers to breathe smoke-free air, and to recognize that the need to breathe smoke-free air shall have priority over the desire to smoke,’” she added.
The REACH grant awarded Public Health NCD Bureau $10,000 for the Healthy Restaurant Project and another $10,000 toward education and enforcement efforts of the Smoke-Free Air Act of 2008.
Business owners and individuals interested in learning more about this effort are encouraged to sign-up for email updates at reachcnmi.wix.com/reach or email LPA Kaitlyn Neises at email@example.com.