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County, city bills would carry fines for smoking in parks

Outdoor bans proposed for public playgrounds, athletic fields

By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

8:26 PM EST, February 11, 2014

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Lighting up a cigarette on playgrounds, athletic fields and other areas in public parks could draw a $50 fine in Baltimore County and $500 in the city under legislation being considered in those jurisdictions.

Supporters of bans on tobacco use say establishing no-smoking zones in public parks would protect children from secondhand smoke. Baltimore City Councilman William H. Cole IV introduced legislation last month after constituents complained about smoking at Latrobe Park in Locust Point.

"They were frustrated that they couldn't take their kids in and enjoy a smoke-free environment," Cole said.

But critics say banning smoking outdoors goes too far.

Politicians are "trying to restrict and hassle adults from conducting a lawful activity," said lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who represents tobacco interests in Annapolis. "The effort is to try to force people to not being able to smoke anywhere. It's just a continuation of the nanny state of government trying to dictate the social and personal habits of individuals."

Nationwide, parks are a relatively new front in the decades-long conflict over public smoking. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Boston and San Francisco have imposed bans in recent years. The American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation says some 900 municipalities have declared parks smoke-free.

In Maryland, Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford counties have imposed bans. Baltimore and Baltimore County join other jurisdictions considering the move.

Cole's bill would prohibit smoking at Baltimore playgrounds, athletic fields and other recreational facilities. All of his council colleagues have signed on as co-sponsors. A hearing is expected this month.

The county proposal would ban smoking at playgrounds, recreational fields and dog parks.

"If you're a smoker, you can simply walk away from areas where there are children and families," said County Councilman David Marks, one of the sponsors of the bill, which is scheduled for a vote next week.

Cole, a Democrat, said such bans are becoming a way of life.

"I don't have anything personally against smokers, but we've already banned smoking at Ravens Stadium and Oriole Park," he said. "It's not like we're reinventing the wheel here."

Bereano said he finds it ironic that local jurisdictions are considering smoking bans as some state lawmakers are trying to legalize recreational use of marijuana.

"It's going to be OK to smoke that weed," he said. "The hypocrisy is rampant."

Tobacco smoke contains 250 harmful chemicals, 69 of which are known human carcinogens, said Dr. Robert Brookland, chairman of the radiation oncology department at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and a board member of the American Cancer Society.

"What we don't know is at what distance are these carcinogens low enough that we're not really at risk," he said. "We ought to err on the side of safety."

Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said the county legislation was "scaled back" from a proposal that would have prohibited smoking on all county parkland. The bill is co-sponsored by council Democrats Vicki Almond of Reisterstown and Tom Quirk of Catonsville.

"I think it strikes a better balance," Marks said. "We want to get a bill through that at least addresses places where children tend to congregate."

The legislation follows a recommendation last year by the county's recreation and parks board. In a letter to Marks, board members said the county has a responsibility to protect the health and safety of children and adults while they use its park and recreation facilities.

"Adopting a tobacco-free policy is part of this obligation," the board wrote.

The bill would not include pavilions, which are often rented for private events. At a work session Tuesday, Councilman John Olszewski Sr. said banning smoking at such events would go too far. "I don't condone smoking, but at the same time, it's a legal product," he said.

Howard County banned smoking on all parkland in 2011. A county spokesman said everyone who has been asked by a park ranger to stop smoking has complied.

"Almost all of them willingly, but some a little begrudgingly," spokesman David Nitkin wrote in an email. "Even our largest events, like Wine in the Woods in downtown Columbia, have required minimal enforcement. It seems this is really something most people want, and appreciate."

In Anne Arundel County, tobacco use is banned in park or recreational facility restrooms, spectator and concession areas, dog parks, aquatic facilities and playgrounds. It is also prohibited within 100 yards of an organized event, such as an athletic competition or a concert.

Harford County has prohibited smoking, the use of tobacco and e-cigarettes on all county property, including parks, since 2012. Smoking is allowed in Carroll County parks, except for within 50 yards of athletic fields during recreation council activities.

"There has been some discussion regarding [a ban] in the past," said Jeff Degitz, administrator of the county's Department of Recreation and Parks. "But there was not an interest among our advisory board to pursue that."

At Honeygo Run Regional Park in Perry Hall, Bob Hughes, who regularly walks his dog there, said he doesn't think smoking in parks is a problem.

"It's going up in the air anyhow," the 74-year-old Baltimore man said. "I gave up smoking back in 1980, but I still love the smell of it."

Hector Carreras, 58, who also was walking his dog, said he once smoked several packs of cigarettes daily. Now he can't stand secondhand smoke.

Walking past a cloud of cigarette smoke feels "like someone went into my lungs and yanked the air out of it," the Perry Hall man said.

Officials in Baltimore and Baltimore County say they believe residents will follow the rules if smoking is banned.

"I'm sincerely hoping that police never have to be involved in this," Cole said. He said the law could be enforced by park rangers and code enforcement officers. "I think the signs will help tremendously."

In the county, Marks said, "We hope that there's a bit of self-enforcement."

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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