When visiting Sherburne County’s government center to attend a court hearing, apply for a passport or complain to the County Board about taxes, guests to the campus in Elk River may not notice the smell of cigarettes near the building’s public entrances.
And, they shouldn’t. Cigarette smoking has been banned at most of the campus doorways since 2007, after state legislators passed a Freedom to Breathe Act that year.
Patios and tables were still available for county workers choosing to smoke outside of three entrances that are used nearly exclusively by employees.
But staff from the Health and Human Services office returned to the board this week with recommendations that those public spaces be closed to smoking and that all tobacco users be directed to their personal cars or trucks on daily breaks.
A county ban on the use of all related products, covering e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco, could extend to the county parks, which would conform to policies in some local cities.
The board expects Health and Human Services staff, such as Director Ken Ebel and Supervisor Kara Zoller, to present a policy for a vote later in September, but commissioners shared split opinions on more proposed prohibition during a workshop Sept. 4.
Commissioner Bruce Anderson spoke strongly in favor of removing tobacco use from all county property, saying that it can lead to heart and lung disease for employees and then ultimately drive up insurance costs.
“That’s all taxpayers’ money,” Anderson said.
His colleague Felix Schmiesing spoke against a tighter ban on tobacco. Schmiesing said that the policy set in 2007 has protected the rights of smokers along with those of other employees and citizens.
He asked whether the county might fight obesity next among its staff.
“Is the next thing that we’re going to run all of our employees across the (weight) scale here?” Schmiesing asked.
Ebel and Zoller reported that more regulations on smoking will qualify the county for more state grants, which could be applied to other health initiatives. Zoller said Sherburne County missed out on one Department of Health grant in early 2012 because of the county’s policy as it is written.
“It’s the way of the future,” Ebel said of more regulation. “It’s the direction of the state.”
“(Smoking) should be a personal right,” Commissioner John Riebel said.
“Should we give up that principle for cash?” Schmiesing asked.
“They are going to control us by dangling that carrot.”
Schmiesing noted that in other ways, the state’s economy depends greatly on sales of tobacco.
“If we got everybody to quit smoking, I don’t know how they would build a stadium (for the Vikings),” Schmiesing said.
“The state is about as two-faced as can be,” Commissioner Ewald Petersen said.
Commissioner Rachel Leonard said that some people could judge the county for making revenue on soft drink and candy sales from vending machines at the government center.
“Just like the state of Minnesota,” Riebel said.
Before thanking Ebel and Zoller for their visit Sept. 4, more than one commissioner asked them that, regardless of other changes, they continue to make Snickers bars available in the building.