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Proposal would prohibit tobacco use in South Whidbey parks

South Whidbey parks director Terri Arnold wants to snuff out tobacco use at parks, playgrounds, playing fields, lakes and other areas on the South End.

And she wants to start May 1, quicker than you can draw down a stale Marlboro.

Her proposal would ban smoking and the spitting of chewing tobacco in all but designated areas on property operated by the district.

“It’s detrimental to health and can be offensive to those using the facilities,” Arnold said Monday.

The biggest concern is its effect on young people, she said.

Still, the crackdown would be purely voluntary.

“We don’t want to write tickets or issue citations,” Arnold added. “We would rely on peer pressure and gentle encouragement.”

The latter would include posted signs detailing the new rules, and information packets displayed at kiosks and other areas throughout the district.

“We think park visitors will cooperate,” Arnold said.

Parks commissioners have yet to endorse the idea. The proposal came up at the last parks board meeting, but died during a procedural vote.

“I think the district needs to be very cautious addressing this issue,” Park commissioner Allison Tapert said Tuesday. “We need to make sure we are balancing people’s right to smoke with non-smokers’ rights not to be exposed to it.”

Arnold and Jessica Minder, the Island County Health Department’s tobacco prevention specialist, attended last week’s meeting of the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation Commission with a draft resolution proclaiming a “tobacco-free parks” policy.

Both Arnold and Minder are members of a coalition of island residents working to combat the effects of tobacco use on people in public places.

Minder said Tuesday that the South Whidbey parks district is the coalition’s first target in an effort to change park policies in the county.

“There’s a huge national trend to create a smoke-free environment,” Minder said. “We’re trying to create a healthy environment for people to engage in healthy activities.”

On Monday, Arnold sent out a press release proclaiming “Tobacco-free parks’ policy approved by South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District board of commissioners.”

Parks officials said the announcement was a tad premature.

“I think she’s getting a little ahead of herself,” chuckled Parks Commissioner Jim Porter.

Porter said the proposed resolution took the board a bit by surprise. He said he’s generally in favor of the idea, and in fact made a motion at the meeting to put the resolution to a vote.

Other commissioners voiced concerns, however, and the motion died for lack of a second. Although the board can set policy on its own, some commissioners wondered if public input should be gathered before a decision is made.

Park Commissioner Matt Simms was out of town and missed the last board meeting, but indicated he was generally in favor of the idea. Commission Chairman Don Wood could not be reached for comment Monday.

Arnold was directed to return to the March meeting with a more defined proposal. Meanwhile, board members said they would study the issue further.

“I’m on the fence,” Porter said Monday. “Should we do it just in sensitive areas such as playgrounds and ball fields, and allow it in the parking lots and designated areas, or should we just do total non-smoking in the parks to avoid confusion?”

“I go back and forth,” Porter continued. “I probably won’t know how I’ll vote until I vote.”

As for enforcement, he added: “We don’t have park police. We can’t fine people. We’d have to depend on compliance by common sense.”

Arnold and Minder said the park proposal is part of a wider effort to promote more smoke-free environments throughout Island County.

Proponents of a no-smoking policy point to the dangers of tobacco, including serious illnesses such as asthma and heart disease, and in some cases, early death.

They say parks are about clean air, natural beauty and healthy activity; that smoking sets a bad example for children; that cigarette butts and other discarded tobacco residue are harmful for children, animals and the environment; and cleaning up after tobacco users costs taxpayers money.

Arnold also said that studies show only 15 percent of Island County adults use tobacco.

Park commissioners Tapert and Linda Kast questioned the advisability of trying to ban a legal activity.

“To my knowledge, the district hasn’t received any complaints about tobacco use in the parks, nor has our staff identified this as a maintenance issue,” Tapert said.

She questioned the advisability of banning tobacco use in parking lots, where vehicle emissions already pollute; on uncrowded trails; and in private boats in the middle of lakes.

“This policy is being pushed upon parks districts across the country by a national policy-making group that wants to ban tobacco,” Tapert added.

Kast said she would be willing to post no-smoking signs in sensitive areas of the parks.

“But I’m not willing to totally ban smoking in the entire park system,” she said. “That went over like a lead balloon in Seattle.”

One day after Seattle Parks Superintendent Timothy Gallagher declared a total smoking ban in city parks, he was forced to backtrack because of public outcry, mostly on the Internet.

Said one comment on the story at seattletimes.com: “OK, so next they should ban fat people from parks. As they too ‘set a poor example for children.’”

Now in Seattle, as of April 1, you can smoke, chew or engage in “other tobacco use” in the parks so long as you’re 25 feet from other people.

“In theory, I think everyone should be healthy and live healthy lives,” Kast said, “but that’s not reality.”

Arnold said Monday she would return to the board with a rewritten resolution, excluding parking lots and trails from the proposed policy.

The next park board meeting is 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 17, at parks district headquarters on Maxwelton Road in Langley.

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