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Smoke break

Zane Whiteman exhales smoke outside of Jake's downtown. As of March 1, a new rule approved by the county health board will prohibit smoking within 20 feet of a building's entrance and will ban the use of e-cigarettes inside public and commercial buildings. 

Come March 1, e-cigarettes will no longer be allowed inside public and commercial buildings in Yellowstone County.

Smokers will also not be allowed within 20 feet of entrances, windows and ventilation systems of public and commercial buildings.

The new rule was finalized Thursday by the RiverStone Board of Health. In approving Rule No. 7 of the Rules and Regulations for Clean Indoor Air, board members decreased the proposed 30-foot stand-back to 20 feet.

The decision to shrink the stand-back distance was a direct result of feedback board members heard during public hearings that went back as far as last spring, RiverStone CEO John Felton said Saturday.

“That was one of the most common issues raised, the distance, and how that would work in areas like downtown,” Felton said. “They clearly heard the public comment.

The Montana Clean Indoor Act, which the Legislature approved in 2005, provided a smoke-free environment inside workplaces and public buildings. The new rule approved for Yellowstone County now incorporates e-cigarettes, which weren't in use back then.

A 2016 report handed down by the U.S. Surgeon General showed that secondhand exposure to e-cigarettes contains nicotine and other harmful substances. Studies also have shown, Felton said, that a range of 20 to 30 feet is required for smoke to dissipate enough so it doesn't create health risks for nonsmokers.

In making its decision, he said, the board was “balancing the importance of reducing the exposure of second- and third-hand smoke with the comments from the public in terms of that distance.”

Under the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act, county health boards develop rules and county health departments are responsible for enforcement. Felton said his department will spend the next 2-1/2 months educating area businesses on the new rule and distributing signs to display the new regulations.

It will be up to businesses to post those signs, he said. When it comes to enforcement, the rule is complaint-driven, Felton said, the same as it is now with indoor smoking.

“There’s not an obligation by business owners to patrol their area with a tape measure, if you will,” he said. “If someone complains, there’s a complaint process and what would happen is we would receive that complaint.”

What Rule No. 7 adds to the complaint process is not only can complaints be filed against businesses. They can be filed against an individual who violates the rule if the person's identity is known.

If a complaint is made against a business, Felton said, a tobacco enforcement specialist from his department would check on compliance and provide education, if necessary. 

A history of repeated violations would get the matter turned over to the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office, Felton said. But he added that he isn’t aware of any criminal prosecutions regarding the Clean Indoor Air Act since it became law in 2005.

“We anticipate people aren’t going to ignore the rule,” he said. “History tells us we didn’t see that happen with the Clean Indoor Air Act and we don’t anticipate seeing that with the local rule either.”

Sean Lynch, owner of the Pub Station in downtown Billings said the 20-foot rule won’t be difficult for him to abide by “but I do think it could be challenging for some other businesses.”

Lynch said he already uses pedestrian barricades to keep smokers in a designated area, and he’ll just have to buy more barricades to extend the space.

"We'll deal with it," he said. "It's still going to allow people to smoke."

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.