Mount Airy update: ?City tobacco-free plan goes up in smoke.
City tobacco-free plan goes up in smoke
November 07. 2014
By Tom Joyce
A proposal to make outside venues such as city parks and recreation facilities tobacco-free never even got to first base with the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners Thursday.
After being briefed on the suggested policy change during an afternoon meeting, the commissioners not only rejected the idea but failed to even bring it to a vote.
“It dies for lack of a motion,” Mayor Deborah Cochran said of none of the four board members present seeing the need to put the measure on the table for action — which instead went up in smoke.
And while no official decision occurred with the issue, plenty of comments greeted a presentation by city Parks and Recreation Director Catrina Alexander concerning banning tobacco use at outdoor facilities. This would have included Westwood and Riverside parks, greenways, Blackmon Amphitheater and public picnic areas.
“I think that’s taking away freedom,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said of prohibiting smoking in the Great Outdoors. “This is God’s country — the air is His and it’s free.”
Brinkley was quick to say Thursday that she does not approve of tobacco use, and wishes the world could be free of cigarette smoke. And citizens have the right to prohibit someone’s tobacco use in their homes, said Brinkley, but she believes banning smoking in outside public venues is problematic.
“I just think we have to be very, very careful taking away the… use of free air,” Brinkley added, saying the ban on tobacco use would be “imposing too much control over people who’ve paid the bill for the recreation facilities.”
Alexander, the parks and recreation director, had told the commissioners earlier that the proposed ban on tobacco products was taking an existing smoke-free policy for public buildings such as the library and Reeves Community Center a step further.
The new policy would have covered any product made or derived from tobacco which is intended for human consumption, including any component, part or accessory of a tobacco product. Cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco and the smokeless variety were specified.
Alexander and City Manager Barbara Jones said the proposal to extend the tobacco ban to outside venues such as parks stemmed from citizen complaints. This has included concerns about second-hand smoke exposure at facilities such as the amphitheater and youth sporting events, and the discarding of cigarette butts on city-owned property, based on Thursday’s discussion.
“It has been talked about increasingly for some time,” Jones said.
The city manager mentioned Thursday that she wanted to make it clear the change targeted to go into effect in January was not aimed at taking away citizens’ rights. “We’re not looking to over-regulate people at all.”
Other communities around the state have adopted similar restrictions for parks and other public grounds, Alexander advised the commissioners.
“I realize that’s something that is not an easy topic to discuss,” she said. “But I think it is something important for the health and wellness” of both municipal employees and the public.
Alexander and Police Chief Dale Watson said voluntary compliance was the goal of the tobacco-free rule rather than police and court involvement, with the erecting of signs to be the only real enforcement tool.
“I just don’t think we have the manpower to actually enforce (it),” Alexander said of the proposed measure that recently was unanimously endorsed by the Mount Airy Parks and Recreation Commission, an advisory group to the city council.
The voluntary compliance claim struck a chord with Commissioner Jim Armbrister, who said that in reviewing the new policy he noticed multiple uses of the phrase “shall be” — which he indicated does not sound voluntary.
“I do have a problem with ‘shall be,’” Armbrister stressed. While it can be argued that tobacco has no place in a recreational facility, he said there are people who use parks for reasons besides improving health — such as those who fish at Westwood Park.
“There’s plenty of open areas that are available.”
Commissioner Jon Cawley also took issue with the implications of an outright ban and suggested that the same outcome might be achieved by installing “courtesy signs” at places including the amphitheater. Such a marker could simply say the city requests that people not smoke at those locations.
Cawley pointed out that in this day and age, smokers have been somewhat vilified and their opinions on such policy changes don’t seem to matter.
However, smokers pay taxes, too, Commissioner Brinkley said at another point during the discussion. Tobacco-free proposals such as the one aired Thursday would erode the rights of people like the cigarette-smoking grandfather who might be uncomfortable watching a child play ball at a city park as a result, she said.
“So I’m glad it didn’t go anywhere.”