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The Niagara County Board of Health voted Thursday to send a brief letter to the County Legislature, asking that it pass further restrictions on smoking in public places.

The four-paragraph memorandum was carefully rewritten over the month since the last board meeting, in hopes of avoiding offending the lawmakers.

Board member John Gotowko of North Tonawanda said, "I don't want to energize the (Legislature) with the budget coming up. . . . We don't want to polarize the Legislature at this point. It wasn't the Legislature that made a lawsuit with us."

The lawsuit was filed by a group of restaurant owners, who won their case against the board in U.S. District Court on April 2. Judge Richard J. Arcara ruled the board lacked the legal authority to impose a near-total ban on public smoking in the county, which it tried to do in 1998.

The letter to the Legislature says, "The court noted the authority and responsibility for regulating environmental tobacco smoke lies with elected officials. . . We encourage you to further restrict smoking in public places. We would be happy to work with you to achieve our mutual goals of protecting the health of citizens of Niagara County."

Dr. Mitchell Zavon of Lewiston, a board member, said, "All we're doing is asking the Legislature to take another look at it, not that we can compel them to do anything."

The letter says, "The board feels obligated to restate its finding that (second-hand smoke) is a serious public health concern and a danger to residents of Niagara County. Research studies supporting this concern continue to appear in major medical and scientific journals. In addition, the evidence that restrictions on public smoking do not have a negative effect on business continues to grow."

On another topic, the board heard from environmental health director James J. Devald that no cases of mosquito-borne encephalitis have been reported in the county since two in 1975. Devald was asked to research the question after reports of the disease surfacing in New York City.

Devald said the county Health Department captures some mosquitoes every year, checks to see what species they are, and sends them to a state laboratory for testing. However, he said the state does not yet test for St. Louis encephalitis, confining its tests to two other strains of the disease.

Turning to another disease, Devald reported that hand-baiting of populated areas with raccoon bait containing rabies vaccine was to be completed today. The two-week process followed on the heels of the Sept. 13 airdrop of vaccine-laced bait in rural areas of the county. Devald told the board that Grand Island was also covered by the airdrop.

Meanwhile, board president Dr. James J. Ulatowski II of Lewiston expressed concern about infant mortality figures reported at a conference in Buffalo Aug. 31.

The statistics released at the meeting of the Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Task Force indicated that the infant mortality rate in 1997 was 12.4 per 1,000 live births in Niagara Falls, a rate that is rising. It is well above the 1997 national average of 7.1 deaths per 1,000 births, and also higher than the city's 1991 rate of 9.5 infant deaths per 1,000 births.

Dr. Ulatowski said infant mortality is defined as a child dying before his first birthday.

However, board member Jean Wactawski-Wende of North Tonawanda said there is an issue over how deaths are reported, saying deaths of children that occur immediately after birth because of a birth defect are often defined as "fetal mortality," and there was a question over whether those deaths should be added into the infant mortality figures or not.

Deputy Public Health Director Shirley A. Sampson wondered whether "Children's Hospital's great success in keeping babies alive, sometime permanently, sometimes not," could simply be boosting infant mortality numbers.

Dr. Ulatowski asked, "Is it a real number? . . . There's an awful lot of young, young teen-agers having babies. That could be part of it. I think everyone agrees it's a social issue. I don't think it's a medical issue."

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