Proposed smoking restrictions raise concerns


METUCHEN — Officials are considering the possibility of banning smoking on certain properties in the borough, such as parks and recreation areas.

Councilwoman Allison Inserro reintroduced the issue at the Oct. 20 Borough Council meeting. Inserro said she felt that the council would move forward with an ordinance that bans smoking in parks and recreation areas, and creates a 50-foot nosmoking zone around borough buildings.

She explained that many other municipalities — 262 at her last count, including East Brunswick, South River, Woodbridge and Sayreville — have already enacted similar smoke-free policies.

She said the borough Board of Health wanted her to bring the issue to the council again after initial discussions in the spring.

“They were not happy about the lack of action all year,” she said.

Officials expressed concern, however, for those borough employees who smoke cigarettes.

Councilman Ron Grayzel asked about the possibility of creating designated areas.

Inserro said some municipalities had gone that route, but the plan wouldn’t be in line with the Board of Health’s recommendation. She added that doing so would be “sending the wrong message to young people, to anyone who is trying to lead a better lifestyle.”

Officials also discussed various borough buildings and whether a limit was feasible based on a set amount of feet, such as 35 or 50.

Mayor Thomas Vahalla said he agrees with a smoking ban for parks and playgrounds, but was concerned about boroughowned buildings such as the firehouse, which has volunteers.

“I’m not encouraging smoking,” Vahalla said. “But they also have rights, too.”

The mayor added that it’s already difficult to attract volunteers, and a smoking ban could compound the issue.

Councilman Peter Cammarano stressed that volunteers could walk a few feet outside the building and have a cigarette, adding that the harder the borough makes it to smoke, the less people will want to do so.

He said not moving forward with a policy to ban smoking undermines borough resolutions, such as the one passed that same night about pancreatic cancer.

The council also discussed the issue of borough employees and how discouraging smoking could benefit them, as well as taxpayers, by potentially lowering insurance premiums.

Inserro and Cammarano said the policy would be largely self-enforced.

Naomi Stahl, research assistant at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, spoke to the council about how the nonprofit Tobacco-Free for a Healthy NJ can provide signage to support a smoke-free ordinance.

“People see these signs. They tend to listen to the signs,” she said, adding that the signs also could have a sticker with the corresponding ordinance number.

Stahl compared smoking laws to those around drinking alcohol in public.

“It’s not punishing the smokers for smoking,” she said. “It’s just as important for people who don’t want to smoke to breathe clean air.”

The council also heard from Fire Chief Rob Donnan, who said that while he does not smoke, some borough firefighters do. He said he was personally torn on the issue because he agreed with it in principle, but also felt the need to advocate for his volunteers.

“It’s not a behavior that I endorse, but it is something that they do,” he said.

He pointed to situations like superstorm Sandy, when volunteers stayed at the firehouse around the clock, making leaving the building to smoke a potential problem.

He also said he was concerned that the Borough Council was overstepping its boundaries by banning an activity that it didn’t agree with.

“I don’t really like the ‘nanny state,’ ” he said, pointing out that there are plenty of dangerous behaviors, such as overeating and drinking alcohol. “I do not like elected officials choosing what they do and do not like.”

Cammarano said it’s not a matter of like or dislike in his case.

“It’s not a ‘feel-good’ for me. I’m just trying to do what is right,” Cammarano said.

Inserro said after the meeting that she is the Board of Health liaison, and since her election last year, she has been partnering with the agency on this issue. She said after initially discussing the issue this past spring, the council waited to act until it saw the result of a possible statewide ban for public beaches and parks. That legislation, however, was vetoed last month by Gov. Chris Christie.