CHAPEL HILL- Orange County’s new ordinance banning smoking in public places comes with a $25 fine for violators, but officials say it’s more about empowerment than enforcement.

“We are not going to take an active role in enforcing that,” says Sergeant Bryan Walker, spokesman for the Chapel Hill Police Department. “That would all be down to the Orange County Department of Health.”

The smoking ban took full effect on July 1, following a six month educational campaign by the county health department.

The ban covers all outdoor locations owned by the towns or county, including sidewalks, bus stops and parks, as well as indoor locations that are open to the general public.

Stacy Shelp, communications manager with the Orange County Health Department, says the aim of the ban is to educate people about the dangers of second-hand smoke and to encourage smokers to quit.

She says the ban should make it easier for people to ask others to put out their cigarettes. 

“It is word-of-mouth, it is grassroots, it is empowering people to be able to say something, which is what this rule is really all about,” says Shelp. “It’s letting people know its OK to say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know if you know, but smoking is not allowed here any more.’”

The Town of Carrboro has posted no smoking signs, while Chapel Hill has installed signs reminding residents to breathe.

But nearly a month into the ban, many remain unaware of the new law, so the health department has organized a Smoking Response Team to target public areas that smokers frequent.

Shelp says the response team visited Franklin Street last week and plans to move into Carrboro by the end of this week.

“They just walk up and down and when they see people smoking they go up and say, ‘I’m not sure that you’re aware we have a smoke-free policy here in Orange County now.’ Just letting people know and asking them to put their cigarettes out. It was very effective. That group on Friday talked to more than 100 people.”

The team is made up of health department employees and volunteers. Shelp says the response so far has been positive.

“I went out and people were for the most part very friendly. We got a lot of people saying ‘I’m completely supportive of the rule,’ or ‘No, I didn’t know but I think it’s great.’”

The health department is expanding its educational campaign to include more signage as well as advertising on local buses, but ultimately, Shelp says enforcement of the ban will come down to concerned citizens.

“It’s all of our air and we should be free to breathe it free of second-hand smoke,” says Shelp. “It’s been exciting to hear how many people are appreciative and now feel much better about being able to say that to somebody that they see smoking around them.”

The health department offers an online complaint form where you can report smoking ban violations, as well as resources for those looking to kick the habit, including free nicotine replacement therapy.

You can learn more about Orange County’s public smoking ban here.