Choking off the smoke

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.

Airing it out: Smokers at Pritchard Park say banning smoking there and in other parks is misguided. Left to right: Bana Brotz, Virginia LeMaistre, Aerin Moonbourne. Photo by Jonathan Welch

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.

Picking up what you're throwing down: Asheville GreenWorks Volunteer Coordinator Allison McGehee picks up butts during a weekly litter cleanup downtown. Photo by Jonathan Welch

"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.


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18 thoughts on “Choking off the smoke

  1. Paul -V-

    I’m not a smoker, but banning it sounds like a very bad idea that will only be enforced when the police want to harass people.

  2. Piffy!

    I agree with Paul. I pretty much loathe the smell of cigarettes, but this sounds like an excuse to harass.

    Instead, fine people for throwing down their butts, please. That’s an existing law that could stand to be enforced.

  3. cwaster

    I have asthmna and detest smoke. However that being said, I have to agree with Paul. Banning smoking in outdoor park areas seems draconian and a good excuse for harassment. Rather enforcement of littering would be the answer. Good Lord, I just agreed with smokers. I think they are selling sno-cones in hell today.

  4. Alan Ditmore

    Smoking helps the environment by nonviolently reducing overpopulation. So leave smokers alone.

  5. David

    I am a smoker ,But have no problem with putting it out in a sand bucket or a plastic holder. And respect those in that area that do not smoke . But when it comes to smoking in bars I have to disagree, That is up to the owner. If not like the smoke in the bars or nightclubs then find a place that has a no smoking area. This law will hurt owners with places that have always establised a smoking area and a non smoking area.
    Alot of these company’s have spent alot of money to seperate the both .If the city can spend 80,000 on a police car or on a dump truck, I think we can come to some sort of agreement on some sand buckets .

  6. b morte

    i think smoking should be banned everywhere that operation of gas and\or diesel powered machines are also banned…talk about secondhand smoke…go stand behind a bus for one minute, that one minute is the toxic equivalent of 1 year in a room with 100 smokers.

  7. Jeff

    Why don’t they just put some focus on the existing laws against littering?

  8. Dionysis

    Let them smoke in designated sections of the parks. Take a corner and put up a large sign saying “Nicotine Addicts Corner-Courtesy of the City of Asheville.”

  9. Ari

    This policy will not only cut down on litter, but help protect the health of everyone who uses the parks. Remember we’re not just talking about Pritchard Park here, but every park, especially ones that kids use. Secondhand smoke is the 3rd leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., and can lead to serious health risks.

    As for b morte’s comment, a smoke-filled room has 6 times more toxic particulate matter that a busy highway.

  10. GoodGrief

    Total and complete smoking ban should be implemented across the board. Everywhere. Smoking kills. Period.
    I am ecstatic that now bars and restaurants will be smoke-free because now myself and many young families will be able to go out and have a good time without being polluted full of toxins.

  11. bmorte

    “Secondhand smoke is the 3rd leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., and can lead to serious health risks”….this is an odd statement, in that preventable death sounds like a ‘serious health risk’…i would be very interested in reading your source documents for your stats re the ranking of secondhand smoke as a death cause, and the air quality on a busy highway…i looked up the first part on a WHO site, and found secondhand smoke listed as the 19th item in a sublist of ‘other misc factors’ in the 24th item listed, in order, as ‘death factors’
    in the last 10 years…’warfare collateral damage’
    was a much bigger percent…show me the numbers, please.

  12. Secondhand Smoke is the leading cause of unnecessary whining in the US.

    Secondhand smoking contributes more greenhouse gases Than all other sources including cow toots.

    3 out of 4 Secondhand Smokers think they look sophisticated while Secondhand Smoking.

    Secondhand Smoking is Socialist

    9 out of 10 morons believe in made up statistics.

  13. Ashevegasjoe

    Did chainsaw write that eliminating smoking would allow families to go to bars without being polluted full of toxins?!! I mean even if you’re drinking soda and eating at Chili’s, I’m guessing that will kill you faster that second hand smoke. I’m not a smoker, but somewhere on that list of “preventable” deaths is obesity and diabetes (probably first and second).

  14. Darkest

    Jeez, people will whine about anything now days …. So if they ban smoking this gruop will whine…if they dint ban it that group will whine.. I am a smoker…the ban on bars is crap…resturaunts i can see …There are alot of parents that dont want their kids around smoke.. i could care less my self..but thats me.. I think the ban in parks should be limited to those with playground equip..there one prob solved…As for down town …they as I know I will just move to the sidewalk outside of the park as well as the bar i frequent and the resturaunt as well…Next thing you know some one will whine that they dont want to smell the smoke on their way in to sed bar…..You know what ppl… there are more smokers than non…and just because we smoke we should and do actually have rights…SO much for a “free country” my asss….

  15. smoke em

    I think that smoking should be allowed everywhere… as long as all of the smokers purchase an enclosed bubble-helmeted suit that keeps all of the smoke with the smoker. That way, they can go wherever they want and smoke all they want, without infringing on the lungs of others.

    My father smoked until his lungs looked like two raisins. When they turned to lung jerkey, they no longer worked properly and he died. God bless you Dad, but if you had given up smoking, you’d still be here…

    Take notice smokers. You are next.

  16. Rebecca A. Nelson

    Well, this does not surprise me one bit, unfortunately. I am clove smoker and just a few months ago was informed that the federal government “banned” clove cigarrettes – of course now they can be purchased as clove “cigars” -if you are lucky enough to find them. I understand that some restaurants may not want people to smoke – I’m a child who grew up when you could still smoke on planes, in the mall, etc. But BARS? Is this a joke? So you can go in and get trashed out of your mind, but heaven’s no, you cannot light up a cigarrette…what is wrong with this picture? It’s like putting a weight watchers in Krispy Kreme – what will they think of next. (I hope this doesn’t mean ALL bars either….) BOO HISS.

  17. JWTJr

    What’s next after smoking? Lots of lifestyle habits are bad for us. Let’s make a list and start attacking it!

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