Building A Case For Smoke-Free Parks

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

I have been corresponding with a parks professional from a county in a northeastern state where the commission chair is advocating for entirely smoke-free facilities and parks.

I became involved when this professional sent out an e-mail to a long list of fellow recreation practitioners asking for ideas. I admire a professional who’s not afraid to seek input from others to ensure a well-versed decision, so I weighed in with a couple of thoughts, and asked permission to share some of the findings with PRB readers.

The county already has smoke-free indoor facilities. The challenge was to regulate wide-open outdoor venues, such as trails, general-use parks, golf courses, etc., on the 12,000 acres of county park land. Also, this ban would include jurisdictions under other county departments, not just parks and recreation. In addition, there were two distinct categories of people affected--county employees and the public--each bringing its own set of issues to the table.

Gathering Facts

For employees there is a leadership issue: Should the focus be on encouraging and enabling employees to quit smoking, or strong-arming them into not smoking on public property, but perhaps forcing them onto someone else’s property to smoke? Would this ultimately lead to morale issues? Even for non-smokers, would it appear to be too restrictive and infringe on employees’ rights?

For the public, including businesses, how would this play out? Would it be conceived as the government going too far into the private lives of citizens? When a similar ban was imposed in a West Coast community, the mayor was forced to reverse the policy due to a harsh public backlash. How would agencies possibly enforce the ban across an entire county? At a time when stress is already high due to the economy, job uncertainty, involvement in multiple wars and other life challenges, could this restriction push employees or citizens over the edge?

For public and private entities in a financially drained environment, how would this impact revenue streams? For example, in this county, the parks and recreation budget of $20 million is balanced nearly 50 percent by revenue earned from five public golf courses where players often smoke cigars.

These were just the surface issues, and only careful examination of the proposed idea would flush out others. So, in order to arrive at inclusive options, a “Smoke-Free Committee” was formed to study the issue. This was an outstanding decision in my opinion. As cumbersome and time-consuming as it is for staff members, a committee comprised of the various stakeholders in an issue, moderated by a neutral public administrator or third-party facilitator, is normally the only way to get everybody around the table talking and understanding everyone else’s position.

Creating A Jury

The committee met several times over two to three months. The members entertained meetings with representatives from the various groups that had previously explored this issue (again, a great idea to avoid repeating others’ mistakes). Members created a list of all county facilities that would be affected, and spoke with park directors in their state and across the nation.

After thorough examination, the committee developed three options for the county-elected body to consider. Each option featured unique benefits and challenges. All options emphasized the importance of the public health of citizens and employees, as well as the protection of the county’s cultural and natural resources. All options defined the purpose of the policy was to “honor the right for all county employees and visitors to breathe cleaner air, and to protect against the adverse affects of second-hand tobacco smoke wherever possible.”

The Verdict

The committee recommended option B to the board for approval. In summary, this option prohibits smoking within 50 feet of any entrance or exit, including doors, windows, air ducts or other openings. It prohibits smoking in any county-owned, leased or rented vehicle. It reaffirms a no-smoking policy on playgrounds and added sports fields and several sports and recreation facilities, including common areas, such as bleachers, restrooms, concessions, etc.

The open spaces of parks and golf courses would not be part of the policy. After consulting parks directors around the country, the general consensus was that it is too difficult to regulate the great outdoors in large tracts of undeveloped parkland and trails. Plus, the police have more important things to do than ticket people for smoking. In addition, as one park system director from another state shared, “We think smoking is dangerous for your health and probably other people’s health, but it is not against the law and smokers are our tax-paying citizens also. In large open spaces we allow it.”

As of mid-August, the time of this writing, the county board hadn’t voted on whether or not to enact the policy, but did vow to decide within a month. Again, not a bad move given the potential volatility of the decision; it gives the members time to talk to constituents and others to check the community’s pulse on the situation.

I’ll report on the final outcome, but I thought this was an interesting topic that may have implications elsewhere, and sharing information may benefit someone else. If you have any advice, ideas or experiences that can be helpful, please contact me or the PRB staff and we’ll share it.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail