Proposal to ban smoking in Northampton’s business districts gets airing

  • Smokers light up in downtown Northampton on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smokers light up in downtown Northampton on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smokers light up in downtown Northampton on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smokers light up in downtown Northampton on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 10/19/2018 10:20:55 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The Board of Health held a forum to get input on its proposal to ban smoking in most areas of downtown Northampton and Florence Thursday. And although most of the handful of commentators who addressed the board enthusiastically supported the floated changes, one dissent did draw considerable comment.

The proposal would ban smoking in public places in both the Northampton Central Business District and the Florence Central Business District. The exception to this would be in specially designated smoking areas. The ban would not apply to privately held outdoor areas.

Because the board of health is a policy making body, it has the power to enact such bans by amending its regulations.

Should it be enacted, this regulation would be the first of its kind in the state.

At the forum, six members of the public who were not members of the press spoke and gave their input on the changes, with the Gazette asking clarifying questions as well. Of those who spoke, four were extremely supportive of the changes.

“I really can’t think of any negative at all,” said Jim Winston, an attorney with a practice downtown.

Florence resident Elaine Kersten, meanwhile, thanked the council, and noted her negative physical reaction to nicotine.

“This is my normal way of walking (in Northampton),” said Kersten, holding her coat in front of her nose and mouth.

Kersten’s partner, Larry Cadorette, said cigarette smoke gives him cluster headaches, so he avoids the streets of Northampton. He thanked the board for its leadership on the changes, clapping his hands before he spoke, but said that he didn’t think that there should be designated smoking areas set aside.

“I don’t think it’s something the board should be about,” said Cadorette. “You’re in the business of promoting health, not providing places for people to smoke.”

Richard Brunswick used to chair the Board of Health, and he also expressed support for the proposed changes.

“I wish we had done something like this then,” he said.

Elliot Oberholtzer is allergic to cigarette smoke. Testifying before the Board of Health, Oberholtzer produced a surgical mask Oberholtzer wears downtown when visiting. Yet, Oberholtzer was the night’s lone dissenter.

“I am not in favor of this ban as it is currently presented,” Oberholtzer said.

Indeed, Oberholtzer said the ban was “a further criminalization of homelessness,” and noted that its enforcement would be done by the police.

Earlier in the meeting, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper confirmed that police were supportive of and would be enforcing the changes if enacted.

Oberholtzer also said that smoking is already banned in places such as Look Park, but people still smoke there, and the current ban isn’t discouraging it. Further, Oberholtzer said that extending the ban would only increase the over-policing of the homeless population.

“This is just a broken-windows policing approach to public health,” said Oberholtzer. “Which isn’t what we need in Northampton”

Addressing this, Cheryl Sbarra, an attorney with Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, said that all Board of Health regulations are about compliance, not punishment.

“They’re just going to be educating them,” said Sbarra, on how she thought police would enforce the law.

Under the current regulations, smokers can be ticketed for smoking in areas where they are not supposed to, such as public parks, and this ticketing area would be extended under the current change. However, Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary said that Northampton has never issued a ticket in its history for this.

Cynthia Suopis, chairwoman of the Board of Health, also noted Oberholtzer’s concern about the homeless community.

“I’m personally concerned about this,” she said.

Suopis also said that numbers showed that a large number of restaurant workers smoke.

“We want to take these things into consideration,” she said.

“It’s not going to be easy,” she continued. “But we’re willing to tackle it.”

She also said the board has received a lot of letters on the topic of the changes.

Board of Health Member Suzanne Smith noted that the board has had numerous members of the business community come to them about the topic of smoking in the downtown in the past.

“This is an ongoing concern of theirs,” Smith said.

Board of Health Member Laurent Levy said that the bans are a matter of education rather than punishment. He also pushed back against Cadorette’s proposal for no designated smoking areas.

“Someone who needs a smoke break will smoke regardless,” he said. “They will smoke wherever they can.”

Ward 6 City Councilor Marianne LaBarge was another speaker, and her suggestion that the board hold a hearing on the topic in Florence was received well by the board. She said that she’d observed a major public smoking issue in downtown Northampton, although she hasn’t seen it become a nuisance in Florence.

O’Leary said that the Board of Health has been discussing the change for almost a year, and that it is very mindful of unintended consequences.

“The smoking issue has always been a balance between individual rights and the public’s health,” said Smith.

Should the Board of Health decide to move forward with the changes, the next step will be a public hearing, where it will vote on making them law. However, O’Leary said the timing for such a hearing would be late winter or early spring.

“We still have a lot to iron out,” she said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at

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