Smoking ban enforcement begins today


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ST. CROIX - The V.I. Health Department will begin enforcing the territory's new smoking ban today.

Although the law - which bans smoking in and around almost all businesses and public buildings in the territory, as well as in some outside areas - technically went into effect in November, enforcement was delayed.

The Health Department, which is the lead agency enforcing the law, granted local businesses a three-month extension to come into compliance.

In preparation for enforcement, Health, along with the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, last month conducted public meetings on all three islands about the smoking ban.

The Virgin Islands Smoke-Free Act was signed into law in May and amended during the final session of the 28th Legislature in November.

When it passed, the law's definition of "enclosed areas" of public places and places of employment where smoking would be banned sparked controversy - and senators softened the definition when they amended the law. Senators also amended the original law to decriminalize violations, making them civil offenses.

However, even though the definition of "enclosed areas" became a sticking point with the original law, Health officials at the public meetings last month said that essentially, the law prohibits smoking within 20 feet of any place providing service to the public, whether those places are in an enclosed area or outside - and whether money is exchanged for services or not.

Citing a different provision of the law that prohibits smoking in "any outdoor service or waiting line and in, and within twenty feet from any point of any service or waiting line," Health Department legal counsel Carl Richardson said during the meetings that if any sort of service is being provided anywhere, smoking is prohibited within 20 feet of that location.

Violations can be reported to the Health Department at 712-6230.

Health Department spokeswoman Eunice Bedminster said Wednesday that the department will be enforcing the law by following up on complaints.

Those calling the number to report smoking violations will be asked to provide their names and contact numbers, and then the caller will have to sign and submit the complaint in written form, Bedminster said.

Under the law, within 10 days, the Health Department must notify the accused business of the complaint. Within 10 days of the notice, the business proprietor must respond and can request a hearing, admit the violation, provide a defense or explanation or state any legal objections to the complaint.

If there is a hearing, the Health commissioner will consider evidence and enter an order, which is final and binding. The order can be appealed in Magistrate Court.

A number of civil penalties are laid out in the Smoke-Free Act.

If a person is caught smoking in a prohibited area where a no smoking sign is posted, a fine of at least $100 - but not more than $250 - can be assessed for each violation.

Businesses caught breaking the law also face penalties, starting with a $250 to $400 fine, which increases for any further violations, and can go as high as $5,000.

In a prepared statement released this week, Health Commissioner Julia Sheen said that officers from the V.I. Police Department and those with peace officer status from other government agencies will assist the Health Department with enforcement.

The Health Department has information and resources about the new law - including a downloadable version of a no-smoking sign that meets the law's requirements - posted to its website at www.healthvi.org.

- Smoking is not allowed in enclosed public places, enclosed places of employment, outdoor service or waiting lines and outdoor bus stations and public transportation platforms. Smoking also is prohibited within 20 feet of any of those locations.

- An enclosed area is defined as a structure that has a roof and more than two substantial walls that have either no opening, or an opening that does not allow air in from the outside, or an opening that is less than 25 percent of the wall's surface area.

- Smokers can light up on sidewalks, streets and beaches, as well as in parking lots, but only if they are 20 feet away from any entrance, exit, window, ventilation system or other openings of any public place or place of employment.

- For beaches and public parks, smoking must take place 20 feet from tents, booths, stalls, stands and benches. Smokers also must stand 20 feet away from bleachers and grandstands to smoke at a sporting or spectator event.

- People can smoke in their homes as long as the residence is not used as a hospice, health care, daycare or adult care facility.

- Workers cannot smoke inside a commercial vehicle, but people can smoke in non-commercial vehicles.

- As long as no one under 18 is admitted, and the smoke does not reach other public places or businesses, smoking inside a retail tobacco store is allowed. Also, if a business' sole purpose is to have people smoking indoors, people under 18 are not admitted and there are no employees other than the owner, smoking is allowed.

- Private clubs - which the smoking ban defines as nonprofit social organizations with dues-paying members that deny access to the general public - can allow smoking only if no one under 18 is present and the smoke does not affect nearby businesses or public areas.

- Employers cannot discriminate against employees who smoke. Also, employers cannot retaliate against an employee or customer who demands the law be followed.

- Employers may provide an outdoor smoking area for employees, as long as it is physically separated from the enclosed workplace and the smoke does not come into the business through windows, doors or other openings. Employers are not required to provide separate break rooms for smokers and nonsmokers.

- Signs stating "No smoking" or showing the international no smoking symbol must be conspicuously posted at every entrance to and inside every public place and place of employment where smoking is banned. All signs must also contain the statement "IT IS ILLEGAL TO SMOKE IN THIS ESTABLISHMENT," along with a Health Department contact number to report violations. Downloadable signs that meet these requirements are available on the Health Department's website at www.healthvi.org.

- Business owners also must remove matches, cigarette lighters and ashtrays from areas where smoking is prohibited.

- Violations are civil offenses that can prompt citations and fines for both smokers and proprietors who illegally allow smoking in their businesses.

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