A statewide ban on smoking in all workplaces, including bars and restaurants, takes effect Saturday, Jan. 2. But that same legislation, passed by the General Assembly in May, also boosts local governments' ability to restrict smoking in public areas such as parks — a move Asheville is already mulling over.
In August, City Council instructed the city attorney's office to draft an ordinance that would address smoking on city-owned property; it is expected to come before Council early in the new year.
"This broadens the areas where we may prohibit smoking," City Attorney Bob Oast told Xpress. In addition to all city parks, the ordinance could also cover Asheville's evolving greenway system and the Municipal Golf Course. Meanwhile, the momentum for such a ban is building outside the Council chamber.
In June, the Buncombe County Board of Health adopted a resolution urging the commissioners to prohibit smoking on all county-owned property. Two months later, the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved such a ban, backing it up with a $50 fine.
Then, in October, the city's Recreation Board — which advises City Council on policy matters — recommended such a ban on a 4-2 vote with one abstention. A public hearing had initially been scheduled for Nov. 24, the last Council meeting before new members would be sworn in, but the item was postponed pending further legal analysis. Oast says it could be ready for Council review in January.
If Asheville takes that step, it will join a handful of other communities nationwide that have banned smoking in parks, both as a way of protecting people from secondhand smoke and to discourage smoking in general.
Several national studies, including a recent collaboration between the University of Georgia and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have raised concerns about exposure to secondhand smoke even in outdoor areas.
Smoking them out
At the heart of Asheville's debate stands Pritchard Park. One of the city's most visible recreational facilities, it is frequently home to a cadre of smokers. The park has also been at the epicenter of other downtown social issues, panhandling included, which have earned the attention of groups such as Downtown Asheville Residential Neighbors that are looking to change the demographics of park users. The group has several times petitioned the city to make the park more attractive to visitors, residents and families, including requesting a park ranger and increased police patrols. The Friends of Pritchard Park, a collaboration between DARN and Asheville GreenWorks, also pulled together a lunchtime concert series there.
After DARN approved a resolution recommending that the city ban smoking there in earlier this year, the resolution soon picked up endorsements from the Downtown Association and Asheville GreenWorks.
"We talked about it being a pilot program" for a potential broader ban, said downtown resident Patrick Mullen, who drafted the DARN resolution. "I think it would enhance the park." Reducing the amount of secondhand smoke drifting through would make the facility more attractive to users, he believes.
But unlike enclosed bars and restaurants, where secondhand smoke fills whole rooms, some maintain that outdoor areas do not pose as clear a danger.
"We're outside. Why wouldn't we be allowed to smoke?" asks Aerin Moonbourne after lighting up with friends at the park.
Mullen, though, points to mounting evidence of secondhand smoke danger. "I don't think that it's any question anymore that it's a health issue," he countered. The air in the park, he maintains, is "pretty cloudy most of the time, and there's cigarette butts all over."
But Gabriel McKinney, also enjoying a smoke at the park, believes there's a larger agenda lurking behind the ban. "They do this every year," he asserts. "It's just digging up dirt to push the homeless out.
Pointing toward a large sidewalk corner across the street, Moonbourne predicts that it will become the new smoking venue if a ban is imposed. "They're just going to go smoke over there," he says.
Meanwhile, the view from on the ground is that change is needed — no ifs, ands or butts. "By piece, cigarette butts make up 80 percent of the trash we pick up," says Asheville GreenWorks staffer Allison McGehee. Every Tuesday, the group picks up litter around downtown, often starting from Pritchard Park. As of Dec. 6, they'd collected 32,555 butts this year, Executive Director Susan Roderick reports.
Rather than singling out the park, however, the draft ordinance now working its way toward Council would apply to all city "grounds," which state law defines as "unenclosed areas owned, leased or occupied" by a local government. That's the language Buncombe County used, and it forms the bedrock of the proposed city ordinance. "We are trying to make the regulation as consistent [with the county's] as possible," notes Oast.
Legal wrinkles, though, pose additional challenges. Much of the smoking at Pritchard Park is actually done on the sidewalk surrounding it, and under state law, a city can't ban smoking on public sidewalks. "Part of what we are looking at is when does the sidewalk become the park," Oast explained.
Geoff Ferland, one of the two Recreation Board members who voted against the recommendation, noted that restricting smokers to the perimeter of Pritchard Park actually makes them more visible to storefronts.
There is some legal middle ground, however. The city could choose to make some parks nonsmoking while allowing it in others. Oast also believes Council members could create designated smoking areas within facilities such as the new Pack Square Park, which is expected to host concerts, festivals and other events likely to attract smokers.
Roderick Simmons, the city's director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts, says his department has been working with the Asheville Police Department to determine how such an ordinance would be enforced and how much energy the APD can afford to expend on monitoring smokers.
McGehee, meanwhile, stresses that although she supports the ban, it's not a magic bullet. Echoing Moonbourne, she says smokers will most likely just move to the sidewalks, following the example of displaced bar patrons gathered outside those establishments. And unless more receptacles for butts are provided and an educational campaign is launched to win over smokers, the ordinance could merely shift the situation elsewhere.
"It's going to be a problem if people just throw their butts down before entering the park," she points out.