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Remember when the anti-tobacco message was: “Mind very much if they smoke"? Back then, a majority of adults and many youth smoked and nonsmokers were regularly subjected to secondhand smoke.

Over time, scientific research and medical data proved conclusively that cigarette smoke is a serious health hazard and that there is no safe level for exposure for smokers or for bystanders exposed to secondhand smoke. Research conducted by Helena physicians and replicated by studies throughout the United States and around the world documented that even spending a lunch break in a smoke-filled room contributed to a higher incidence of heart attacks in communities that permitted indoor smoking.

That research helped propel Montana lawmakers to strengthen the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act, so that by 2009, no smoking was permitted in any indoor space open to the public.

The state law authorized the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to enforce the CIAA and to work with county health boards to enforce it in their communities. The Yellowstone City County Board of Health has had such an agreement with DPHHS for nearly a decade.

The state law also allows county health boards to enact more stringent rules to ensure that indoor air is not polluted by smoking. Following the lead of Lewis and Clark County and several other Montana counties, the Yellowstone board of health began studying options for a stronger clean air rule.

Recent research in peer-reviewed scientific journals indicated that nonsmokers can be exposed to cigarette smoke even outdoors or when smoking occurs are close to building entrances.

Meanwhile, e-cigarettes came on the market in a big way and rapidly became popular with youth across America. In Montana, the number of high school students surveyed who had tried vaping increased 46 percent in a single year.

So after more than a year of study, getting public comments and holding two public meetings, the board of health finalized a rule that included vaping in the law. The rule also said that cigarette smoking and vaping are not allowed within 20 feet of a door, window or vent into a building open to the public. (Initially, the board considered a 30-foot setback, but reduced it to 20 feet after receiving public comment.)

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The Yellowstone County Tavern Association and some bar and casino owners sued to stop enforcement of this rule. On Dec. 14, exactly one year after the health board finalized the rule, District Judge Gregory Todd upheld the rule. Todd found that the county rule complies with state law, writing: “the board has a legitimate government interest to keep the public safe from secondhand smoke, and maintaining a 20-foot distance from doors, intake vents and windows is rationally related to that interest.”

The health department, which is RiverStone Health, is enforcing the Clean Indoor Air Act on a complaint basis. Complaints will be investigated and, if substantiated, public health officials will work with the business. If the noncompliance isn’t resolved, under state law and the county health rule, the third offense in a three-year year period would be a misdemeanor. Then the case would be referred to the county attorney for a decision on whether to file a misdemeanor charge against the scofflaw business.

With the court’s affirmation of the clean indoor air rule, people concerned about air quality should thank the thousands of local businesses that are complying with the law. The state law has always required posting of no smoking signs. When the Yellowstone County rule took effect last March, local businesses were asked to post signs saying: no smoking or vaping inside or within 20 feet.

RiverStone Health provided those signs at no charge to businesses.

Those blue and white notices are signs of a healthy community and businesses that value their customers' wellbeing.

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