CAPITAL REGION The small resort city of Norcross, Ga., made a bold move in February. It tried to ban smoking on or near all city property — its parks, its sidewalks, outside city buildings and more.
The ordinance backfired. And it wasn’t just smokers who were mad. Business owners were upset they might lose customers. Nonsmokers felt the government had overreached.
“That’s a good example of going a little bit too far,” said Theresa Zubretsky, of the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition.
Here are some local bans:
ALBANY COUNTY: The city of Cohoes and villages of Green Island and Voorheesville are 100 percent smoke- and/or tobacco-free in their parks. The town of Colonie has a smoke-free policy at The Crossings.
FULTON COUNTY: The city of Gloversville and village of Broadalbin are 100 percent smoke- and/or tobacco-free in their parks.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY: The town of Mohawk and villages of Fonda, Fultonville and St. Johnsville are 100 percent smoke- and tobacco-free in their parks.
SARATOGA COUNTY: The towns of Greenfield and Moreau are 100 percent smoke- and tobacco-free in their parks. The town of Clifton Park has a smoke-free policy at its three outdoor municipal pools.
SCHENECTADY COUNTY: The village of Scotia and towns of Glenville, Niskayuna and Rotterdam all are 100 percent smoke- and tobacco-free in their parks. The city of Schenectady is smoke- and tobacco-free at its playgrounds, pools, pavilions and ball fields.
Smoking bans almost always produce ire at first. Locally, an exception has been public parks. Nobody wants to advocate smoking in parks, which draw children to playgrounds and walkers and runners to green spaces.
In fact, if smoking bans were implemented anywhere outdoors, it seems the first place people would want them is at playgrounds, followed by pools, beaches and parks. With the recent effort to ban smoking in all state parks, some might be surprised to learn that their local municipalities long ago put similar bans in place, and the effort is not likely to stop anytime soon.
When the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation announced a smoking ban in April, it was met with some surprising backlash. The ban was never formally recognized, said smokers’ rights group New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (NYC C.L.A.S.H.).
Under New York’s rule-making process, the parks office would have to publish a regulatory impact statement and hold a 45-day public comment period on the ban before it could issue tickets to people who smoke in designated non-smoking areas.
The state complied, but NYC C.L.A.S.H. sued to get it to remove the “No Smoking” signs that remained in place at the parks. Leaving them up while smoking is still legal is misleading, the group said.
The recent kerfuffle is interesting to Zubretsky. More than 300 municipalities across the state have already adopted tobacco-free policies for their parks, pools and playgrounds. In the Capital Region, those policies range from an ordinance, which writes it into law and may come with a fine, to a non-binding resolution, which simply asks smokers to voluntarily comply.
“There’s overwhelming support in the community for tobacco-free parks, playgrounds and beaches,” said Zubretsky. “Across the Capital District, it varies some, but it’s been increasing steadily, and that’s even among smokers themselves.”
A survey conducted by the coalition in Albany, Rensselaer and Schenectady counties last year found that 82 percent to 84 percent of residents support an expansion of the Clean Indoor Air Law to playgrounds. More than three-quarters of residents support expanding it to municipal pools, and more than half support expanding it to public parks and outdoor recreation areas.
When smoking was banned from almost all indoor public spaces, the outdoors was seen as a safe haven for smokers — from the policies, the signs, the stares and the occasional harassment. But cultural attitudes shift.
“Over time, people’s attitudes catch up with what we’ve known for a long time,” said Zubretsky. “People understand even more deeply now about the dangers of secondhand smoke. We have so much more scientific evidence for the harms caused by secondhand smoke, and I think people are catching up to it.”
When the Clean Indoor Air Law was established, it was touted as a huge boon to the health of indoor workers, particular in the restaurant and tavern industry. Now, municipalities post signs at entry ways, colleges ban it on campus and people ask for clean air at their beaches. The cultural shift is trending nationwide, said Zubretsky.
But even with growing support for smoking bans in parks, how do you enforce a ban?
There are a lot of considerations. Some municipalities have no-smoking zones in their parks, meaning a playground area or a popular gathering spot might have a smoking restriction. The benefit of this setup is that it provides relief to smokers who don’t have to travel far to light up. The downside is that it’s hard to tell where such a zone ends.
The town of Niskayuna has a curb-to-curb ban, meaning the entire park is intended to be tobacco-free. The benefit of this is that parents don’t have to worry about “encroachment.” The lack of zones makes it easy to delineate.
In some places, the decision is as easy as where a complaint comes from. In Clifton Park, for example, there had been a complaint about smoking at the town pools. So the town enacted a smoke-free policy at all three of its outdoor pools with little fanfare.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a complaint about anything at the parks,” said Myla Kramer, director of the town’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Community Affairs. “Honestly, the town is extremely responsive to our residents and that’s why we never had a ban put in place at the pools. So if residents did have concerns, the board would consider it.”
There isn’t a smoking ban in the parks for that reason; it just hasn’t come up.
Niskayuna passed its law unanimously in June 2008. A month later, the city of Amsterdam began to consider a ban of its own.
This mulling period is usually about the time when the Tobacco-Free Coalition steps in. The Capital District branch promotes a statewide initiative known as “Young Lungs at Play” and provides “No Smoking” signs with the slogan at no charge to local parks departments. The idea isn’t just to eliminate children’s exposure to secondhand smoke, said Zubretsky.
“We don’t want to just protect young lungs at play,” she said. “We want to protect everybody. But some places like to start with smaller steps of really trying to focus on areas that are almost exclusive family/kid areas. It depends on the perceived need of a community. Each municipality should hash it out in their own way.”
But Audrey Silk, of NYC C.L.A.S.H. disagrees, saying there is no valid scientific evidence that cigarette smoke outdoors poses a risk to anyone — child or adult.
“They resort to ‘for the children’ as emotional blackmail in their war on smokers,” she said in an email. “The park might be the only place a smoking parent might personally feel free to smoke. Do they then stop taking their kids to the park or leave them unattended while they move off site for a cigarette?”
The same groups that support outdoor smoking bans think nothing of the smoke from a barbecue or a fireworks display, she said.
The Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition is currently working on getting signs to the cities of Albany and Troy, which both recently approved smoking restrictions in their municipal parks.
One of the earliest adopters of bans in the Capital Region was the town of Glenville, said Zubretsky.
Additionally, the village of Scotia and the town of Rotterdam have 100 percent smoke- and tobacco free policies in their parks. The city of Schenectady enacted a smoke-free policy at its playgrounds, pools, pavilions and ball fields in June 2010. Smoking had previously only been banned at Tiny Tot Land in Central Park and at city pools.
The city also attached a $50 fine for any violations, but actually slapping someone with a fine is unusual. Most municipalities prefer the “voluntary compliance” method, said Zubretsky, and even those that impose fines usually do so for symbolism.
“They don’t have to impose a penalty at all,” she said. “A lot of the times it’s to elevate this action and say that it’s at least as important as scooping your dog’s poop or not littering in a public place. They’re saying that this is important enough to be worthy of a fine.”