Putnam smoking ban falls
A federal court judge yesterday struck down Putnam County's year-old public smoking ban, ruling the Board of Health encroached on the powers of the Legislature and considered non-health-related factors outside its purview in enacting the regulations.
The ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon came seven months after the Dutchess-Putnam Restaurant and Tavern Association, Cutillo's Restaurant in Kent and Highlander's Hub of Philipstown filed suit challenging the ban.
The regulations, which took effect Jan. 1, prohibit smoking in restaurants, bowling alleys and workplaces, except in enclosed, ventilated sections. The law applies to other public places, including stores, hospitals and places of worship, but it does not cover bars and taverns. Businesses have to display signs about the dangers of secondhand smoke.
Joe Falcaro, who works at the front desk at Carmel Bowl on Old Route 6, was ecstatic to hear the law had been shot down, even though he did concede the ban appeared to help business.
"I think it's great. I'm a smoker, and I thought they were taking a privilege away from me," he said.
Three federal courts in the 2nd Circuit have struck down similar regulations on the basis that the county boards exceeded the powers vested in them by the state Public Health Law, wrote McMahon of U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York in White Plains.
In Dutchess County, a federal judge ruled in July 2000 that the Health Board exceeded its authority by enacting regulations similar to Putnam's.
Putnam County Health Director Bruce Foley said he couldn't specifically comment on the ruling without having seen it. The Health Board, he said, did ask legislators to enact a smoking ban, "and they opted to defer it to the Board of Health."
McMahon wrote that it is clear the Legislature did not enact a law restricting smoking in order "to avoid the 'political heat' from such an action, and to maintain a neutrality on the issue of smoking regulations."
Legislator Sam Oliverio, D-Putnam Valley and a Board of Health member, promised to push for the Legislature to act on the issue.
"Legislatively, I'm not going to allow the children of this county to be subject to the possible effects of second-hand smoke," he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said second-hand smoke is linked to lung cancer and other significant health threats to children and adults.
Legislature Chairman Robert Pozzi, R-Mahopac, said legislators would have to read the decision and sit down with the Board of Health and the appropriate legislative committee to decide what the best course of action would be.
McMahon wrote that the defendants "obviously considered social and economic factors in enacting these regulations, even if they did not outwardly profess to do so."
She said the "selective restrictions" â€” for example, the exclusions for bars, taverns and private social functions â€” reveal that health was not the board's only concern.
"Had it been, the board would have banned smoking in public places altogether," she wrote.
McMahon did not accept the plaintiffs' arguments that the smoking ban infringed on their constitutional rights under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and free-speech clause of the First Amendment.
White Plains attorney Anthony Servino, who is representing the county on the case, was unavailable for comment late yesterday afternoon.
Lillian Jones, the American Cancer Society's regional advocacy director for the Hudson Valley, which includes Putnam, Westchester and Rockland counties, said the regulations worked very well over the past year. The success is a good sign, she said, that county residents want smoking regulations in place.
Donna Bernard, president of the county Board of Health, said residents need to write and petition their legislators to enact a law that restricts smoking.
"The true tragedy here is that because of a legality of who could enact public health law, we now have gone back to square one," Bernard said.
Some members of the Wednesday night bowling league at Carmel Bowl felt differently.
"Break out the ashtrays," one man shouted while keeping score.