The Nolanville City Council is at it again.
Just over a year after the council passed an ordinance making the city the first in the area to ban texting while driving, council members are considering new restrictions on the city’s smoking ordinance.
The biggest proposed change would make it illegal to smoke in a vehicle when a minor is present.
Other changes would ban smoking in public areas, as well as a requirement for a separate ventilation system for smoking sections in restaurants.
The ban would apply to all forms of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.
Certainly, smoking has proved to be harmful to health, and the dangers of secondhand smoke have been established as well.
But the question council members must ask is whether such a restrictive ordinance is in the best interest of the city’s residents, or whether it simply impinges on smokers’ civil rights.
The determining factor may be whether the restriction serves to effectively protect others’ health or safety.
Such was the case with the ordinance Nolanville passed and enacted last year that prohibited texting while driving within the city limits. Several studies have validated concerns about the consequences of distracted driving — with texting being one of the most common contributors to the problem.
Recognizing this, several cities, including Killeen, banned cellphone use in school zones altogether, in an effort to safeguard students walking to and from school. Legislators later followed suit with a statewide law.
Nolanville’s comprehensive ban on texting while driving, which went into effect April 1, 2017, was the first of its kind in the Killeen-Fort Hood area. However, the Texas Legislature subsequently passed a statewide ban, so Nolanville no longer stands out in that regard.
Time will tell if other cities follow Nolanville’s example and take up the in-vehicle smoking issue.
The city would appear to be on pretty solid legal ground when it comes to the ban on smoking in public places and requiring separate ventilation units in restaurants that allow smoking. Many other cities in Central Texas have similar restrictions in their ordinances.
However, while Nolanville’s proposed ban on smoking in vehicles with minors present may also be legal — it’s been the law of the land in California since 2008 — its value is questionable.
Drivers with children onboard may well abstain from smoking while passing through Nolanville, but it’s a small town. Obeying the law wouldn’t necessarily mean forgoing that cigarette altogether; it would just mean waiting a few minutes to light up.
For Nolanville residents, it would just be a matter of waiting until they get home before grabbing a smoke.
This is where the city’s proposed ordinance falls short.
Other restrictive ordinances, such as the texting and driving ban, aim to modify behaviors with the purpose of protecting residents’ health and safety. If drivers who text and drive are subject to a fine if caught, it’s a strong incentive to change that behavior — and pedestrians and other motorists are protected as a result.
The requirement of separate ventilation systems for restaurants that allow smoking may not change the behavior of smokers who frequent these restaurants, but it affords health protections to nonsmoking patrons by shielding them from secondhand smoke.
But with the proposed ban on smoking in vehicles, the ordinance would have little effect on the smokers’ behavior and offer only modest protection for the minors in the car.
Certainly, it would always be preferable if a minor could travel around town in a smoke-free vehicle. That in itself is a laudable objective.
However, in most instances, minors in any given vehicle are likely the driver’s children.
If that’s the case, the parent probably smokes around the children at home as well as in the car. So an ordinance reducing the children’s exposure to smoke by a few minutes here and there is unlikely to provide many health benefits overall.
Moreover, such an ordinance would be hard for police to enforce — putting them in the position of having to scan a vehicle for minors whenever they observe a driver who is smoking. That chore would be made even more difficult when the vehicle is moving.
One council member was quick to note that the proposed ordinance is not about bringing in money for the city. Rather, it’s about encouraging healthy behaviors.
Still, despite the well-known health risks of smoking, such an intrusive ordinance may be a hard sell with the city’s residents —some of whom may see it as not only a law telling them where they can smoke but also how they should parent their children.
Residents will have a chance to voice their opinions about the ordinance at a public hearing Thursday evening — a meeting that should draw a sizeable crowd at City Hall.
No matter what council members decide to do, some residents are likely to be unhappy with the outcome.
But ultimately, the council’s decision should come down to public health and safety — and whether their actions can significantly enhance those areas.
Everything else is just so much smoke.