See a Smoker in a Non-Smoking Area? Call 911

Kate Monaghan | Correspondent | Thursday, October 19, 2006

See a Smoker in a Non-Smoking Area? Call 911

( - If you catch someone smoking in a non-smoking area in Omaha, Neb., call the police. The Omaha Police Department (OPD) is encouraging city residents to call 911 in the wake of the citywide ban on smoking that went into effect on Oct. 2.

Teresa Negron, sergeant in charge of public information of the OPD, explained that the department encourages observers of infractions to pick up the phone to report the infraction -- just like they would for any other crime they observe being committed.

"Citizens or business owners that observe a violation to the smoking ban are urged to call 911 and report the violation," Negron told Cybercast News Service. "[It's like] any other crime that happens in any city -- if somebody sees a crime happen, they can call 911 and report it."

Negron did not necessarily endorse immediately calling 911 but still saw it as a viable option.

"What I would recommend for people to do is bring it to the attention of the management, and if that doesn't stop, then obviously contact us, and we'll respond and we'll handle it," she said.

However, the calls are not high priority.

"The first week, we had maybe 10 calls in the entire city," said Negron. "Calls concerning the smoking ban were not high-priority calls, so we have a system in place that calls that come in and have a higher priority will be handled."

The penalty is a citation and fee for individuals caught violating the ban -- $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $500 for the third and subsequent offenses, according to a summary of the city ordinance posted online.

"Obviously, they would receive a citation for violating the smoking ordinance," said Negron.

According to some, however, the new law will encourage people to become "snitches."

"I think that it's one thing for people to monitor themselves," said Amy Kauffman, research fellow for the Hudson Institute. "It's another thing to ask people to monitor their friends, neighbors and cohorts. It is turning people into snitches."

Kauffman called this "a horrible thing" and a waste of city resources.

"To use 911 for this purpose goes against what 911 is designated for. It is an emergency service. These are not emergencies," Kauffman said.

She further classified the situation as over the top.

"To take 911, which is supposed to respond to someone within I guess one to three minutes, and use it for this and to clog the lines with busybodies phoning in on their neighbors is ridiculous."

Mark Welsch, president of the Group to Alleviate Smoking Pollution (GASP) of Nebraska, disagrees.

"It's not an over-reaction, it's a good use of our city resources" that are being squandered on smokers, according to Welsch.

"I think about 13 percent of our total Medicaid expenses are caused by tobacco," Welsch said. "So, I'm paying too much. I don't want to subsidize tobacco use in my state. We should have just enough to break even. For next year, we would have to raise the tobacco tax by about 50 cents per pack -- just to break even."

Smoking isn't the only problem that needs fixing to trim down the costs, Welsch said. There's also a problem with food consumption that needs attention.

"We're such a fat country, by and large. Somebody needs to do something, or our Medicaid and Medicare costs are just going to continue to go up and up, not just because of smoking, but because of people being overweight and too lethargic to take their butts outside and walk," said Welsch.

Kauffman noted that smoking is not good for your health but insisted that 911 calls are not the answer.

"Smoking has been proven to be bad for one's health," she said. "But I really think that sometimes, these people go a little bit too far. It is a trend, but this is different because not only is it a trend where they're saying 'no smoking,' but now they're asking people to actually phone in and report other people."

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