Kids push bus stop smoke banNot many 12-year-olds play an active hand in shaping public policy. But Tracy Onchwari and her peers aren’t your average kids, and they didn’t spend this past summer just goofing off.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
Not many 12-year-olds play an active hand in shaping public policy. But Tracy Onchwari and her peers aren’t your average kids, and they didn’t spend this past summer just goofing off.
Instead, they dedicated at least part of the summer to surveying 211 riders on their thoughts about secondhand smoke. Onchwari, a seventh-
grader at Woodland Middle School, and other youngsters found that 83 percent of people they approached thought secondhand smoke was a problem at outdoor bus stops, and about 75 percent of respondents supported the idea of banning smoking in designated areas around bus shelters.
Monday, the Duluth City Council will take up a proposed ordinance inspired by those findings, and an admittedly excited Onchwari will be on hand to speak in support of the measure.
“This could help people live longer, happier lives,” Onchwari said of the proposed new rule.
Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner credits Onchwari and her peers for the resolution she co-authored with former council member Gary Eckenberg.
“This whole thing was driven by their research,” Gardner said. “She should be excited and proud.”
The proposed city ordinance would forbid smoking within 15 feet of any bus shelter.
Assistant City Attorney Steven Hanke said it’s already against the law to smoke inside a bus shelter, but if the proposed ordinance passes, he believes Duluth would become the first municipality in the state to ban smoking outside such a structure.
Not all councilors think Duluth would be wise to blaze a new trail.
Jay Fosle, for one, opposes the proposed ordinance. He contends that vehicle exhaust, particularly from diesel engines, is a source of more carcinogens than cigarette smoke.
But Gardner argues the presence of other pollutants is no reason to disregard the dangers of cigarette smoke.
“Secondhand smoke is an issue,” she said. “The science is in. Whether you’re inside or outside, it’s bad for you.”
Instead of passing more regulations, Fosle said he supports an effort to enforce current laws that forbid smoking in shelters.
“If we can’t enforce the laws that already are on the books, what’s the purpose of more regulations?” he asked, adding: “In my eyes, it’s a wasted ordinance.”
Brad Wick, public information officer for the Duluth Police Department, said that when smoking in bus shelters comes to local law enforcement’s attention, officers do respond. But he said the department lacks the manpower to make enforcement of smoking rules a high priority.
Gardner believes the proposed ordinance would send a loud message to smokers that they need to steer clear of bus shelters.
Councilor Todd Fedora expressed concern about the effect of the proposed ordinance, asking Hanke if the smoke-free buffer couldn’t potentially force people walking by with a cigarette off the sidewalk and into the street. Hanke agreed that was a possibility.
But Gardner said police could easily distinguish between smokers passing by a shelter and those standing in wait.
“With anything, you have to use common sense. And I think our police department and its officers have a lot of common sense,” she said.
Regardless of the petition’s success, the experience of bringing an issue forward has empowered young people, said Jahna Hardy, program director of East Hillside Patch, a neighborhood community organization that helps residents mobilize behind issues of social justice and community health. Hardy’s group organized the summer youth program in which Onchwari and others participated and undertook the survey of local bus riders.
“The more they learned about the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, the more they became impassioned,” Hardy said. “We couldn’t have done this without these children. They were the heart and soul of the effort.”