New Smoking Limits Approved for OC Fair

Smokers attending the Orange County Fair will likely face greater restrictions on where they can light up, after a new policy was approved last week that limits smoking to designated areas.

While the proposed locations haven’t been announced, fair vendors who allow cigar smoking are warning that the move will hurt their business and the fair experience.

“We are an asset to the party atmosphere of the fair,” said Jeanine Robbins, who owns the Paradise Cigars booth with her husband Mike, during a fair board meeting last week.

Mike Robbins, meanwhile, said fair staff told him smoking will be prohibited at bars, which would impact drink sales.

At the same time, organizations like the American Cancer Society and American Lung Association are calling for Orange County to follow in San Diego County’s footsteps and completely ban smoking at the fair.

Representatives of both organizations, along with San Diego County advocates, came to last Thursday’s meeting to urge officials to go 100 percent smoke-free and offered their help.

“We thought children should have a smoke-free experience at the fairgrounds,” said Peggy Walker of Solana Beach, who said that smoke from designated smoking areas still affects kids.

San Diego County’s experience, which involved a designated-areas-only policy before becoming smoke-free, drew interest from the Orange County fair board’s president, Ashleigh Aitken.

She asked the San Diego County advocates to send more details about the history of that fair’s smoking policies and how they were rolled out, along with a poll that one advocate said showed 92 percent of fair attendees supporting the policy.

Orange County’s new designated-areas policy is “a good first step,” Aitken said.

The fair is Orange County’s largest public event, drawing an average of about 60,000 attendees per day over a month-long period in summer.

Attendees are already prohibited from smoking within 20 feet of public buildings, which includes structures like the Parade of Products and livestock areas.  But up until now, smoking has been allowed in many open areas.

At last week’s meeting, fair board members approved the new designated areas policy, which covers tobacco smoking, along with electronic cigarettes, vaporizers and oil/wax pens.

The vote was a unanimous 7-0, with board members Bao Nguyen and Barbara Bagneris absent.

Board member Gerardino Mouet said he “wholeheartedly” supports the new limitations.

“There’s no doubt that the science supports” that tobacco smoke “is bad for you,” said Mouet, who is also Santa Ana’s director of parks, recreation and community services.

Prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke can cause heart disease and lung cancer, and single exposures can lead to asthma attacks in children, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is a matter of public health,” said board member Nick Berardino, who is also general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

“We need to be very serious” about it.

Six potential smoking areas are being looked at by fair staff, who say one will be near the Robbins’ booth.  The locations of those possible locations, however, were not disclosed at last week’s meeting.

“We cannot get any definitive answers” as to where the smoking areas would be, Jeanine Robbins said.

Cigar smoking at the fair got an endorsement from board member Robert Ruiz, who said he knows people who only smoke cigars there.

“I’d hate to see something like that taken away from them,” Ruiz said.

Aitken, meanwhile, called out fair staff for failing to invite her to a key meeting on the smoking issue.  People on just one side of the issue were present, she said.

“I would like stakeholders on both sides of the issue. And if there was a board member present,” Aitken added, she’d be “a pretty logical choice.”

Cigarettes weren’t the only smoking issue to come up in last week’s discussion.

Berardino pointed out that barbecue stands at the fair often have large clouds of smoke that waft into the crowds.

“That area down there is…like a heart attack waiting” to happen, Berardino said.

“Talk about exposing children,” he added.  “These poor people are walking down this main food area…people are putting covers over their children.”

The barbecue stand issue is expected to come back at the next board meeting, on March 26, for a discussion on whether the vendor has made a commitment to address it.

As for tobacco smoke, smoking rates in the U.S. have declined significantly in recent decades, amid growing awareness in the 1990s and 2000s about the serious health risks of smoking, along with limitations on advertising.

Tobacco companies, in turn, have shifted much of their focus to growing their business abroad, including with advertising messages that appeal to youth.

Here in the U.S., anti-smoking advocates say e-cigarettes, several of whose manufacturers are owned by tobacco companies, are starting to convince young people that smoking isn’t so dangerous.

Walker, the Solana Beach resident, said children’s perception of danger from cigarettes had been increasing until a couple of years ago when e-cigarettes gained popularity.

All of a sudden, she said, the perception of smoking’s danger decreased and tobacco use went way up.

“Kids start on them now and graduate and jump over to cigarettes,” Walker told board members.

Tobacco companies, meanwhile, say e-cigs are a safe way for tobacco smokers to transition away from cigarettes.  Experts have come down on both sides of the issue.

As for the county fair,  at the heart of the matter is the classic debate over smoking rules: balancing the interest of smokers to enjoy their cigarette or cigar, with the interest of others to not inhale secondhand smoke.

Cigar stand owner Mike Robbins pointed out that many Orange County restaurants, like JT Schmid’s and The Winery, allow cigars outside.

“Their object is to serve their clientele,” Robbins told board members.

Others, like Costa Mesa resident Cindy Brenneman, said it’s unfair to the other fair guests.

“I don’t see why people that don’t smoke have to be subjected to somebody else’s smoke,” Brenneman said.

It’s unclear when the fair’s new smoking areas will be announced. This year’s fair runs from July 17 through August 16.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.