The Seattle Parks Board is considering a ban on smoking and the use of other tobacco products in city parks. Guest columnist Abigail Halperin urges the board to adopt the ban, arguing the ban would be good for public health and that people have the right to breathe smoke-free air.
NEW conduct codes have been proposed by the city of Seattle to make our many parks cleaner, safer and more enjoyable. Some of these rules have raised concerns about discrimination and personal freedom, including one that would ban smoking or using other tobacco products in city parks. In this case, protecting the public from tobacco smoke — a substance as toxic to humans as radon and asbestos — is the real issue at hand, not whether such a decision infringes on individual rights.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, exposure to secondhand smoke kills 50,000 people in the United States annually and incurs over $10 billion in direct health-care costs. Even outdoors, tobacco smoke is dangerous to large segments of the population. This includes infants and children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with asthma and those with a host of other medical conditions. Breathing someone else’s smoke is not merely annoying for nonsmokers. At best, it is extremely unpleasant. At worst, it can be fatal.
People of legal age are free to use tobacco or drink alcohol in places and situations where it is safe and causes no harm to others, but the city has an obligation to protect people from known health risks resulting from these behaviors on public property. It is the job of our parks board commissioners to create regulations that permit residents and visitors to safely enjoy our parks and recreation areas.
Fewer than 10 percent of King County residents are smokers. The only policy that will prevent the rest from being involuntarily exposed to secondhand smoke is to ban smoking entirely in all the parks.
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Designating nonsmoking areas around playgrounds or sports fields to protect children has been suggested, but this is not a fair or viable solution. Both children and adults use all the parks for recreation, and people of all ages deserve the benefits of breathing smoke-free air. A partial smoking ban is an oxymoron, and makes no more sense than a smoking section in a restaurant or a peeing section in a swimming pool.
Equally important, 70 percent of smokers say they want to quit smoking, and half of them try to quit each year. It takes many tries for most people to quit for good. Often it’s too late.
Smoke-free laws have been shown to help people succeed in freeing themselves from this deadly and addictive habit. Conversely, allowing smoking in public places thwarts the efforts of smokers trying to quit and undermines our state programs to prevent youth from starting to smoke.
Enacting an inclusive and unambiguous smoking ban in our parks will save lives and money and improve quality of life for all. Failing to act, or creating an ineffective rule, would be a victory only for the tobacco companies, who have successfully overturned or delayed passage of similar public-health measures in our state before. Let’s not let this happen again.
Abigail Halperin is a Seattle physician who specializes in the prevention and treatment of tobacco dependence and related diseases.