After nearly two hours of debate Monday, the Vancouver City Council unanimously approved a controversial ban on all tobacco use in public parks, effective Jan. 9, 2012.
The decision was part of the council’s approval of comprehensive changes to the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation codes, which include bans on the consumption of liquor, restrictions on the use of amplified sound, and regulations involving park expulsion and trespassing.
Since 2005, the City Council has asked park visitors to refrain from smoking around playgrounds voluntarily, but the new ban makes smoking a potential misdemeanor that could incur fines up to $1,000, expulsion from parks, and even jail time.
City staff, however, took great effort to downplay the severity of punishments that might occur.
“It’s up to a judge to decide if they would fine someone or jail them for up to 90 days for a parks code violation, which is highly unlikely,” said City Attorney Ted Gathe.
Ban called assault on low-income renters
Opponents of the ban called it discriminatory, resenting what they perceived as a subtle assault on
low-income people who aren’t allowed to smoke in their apartments or decks.
“This seems like an issue of bias for the poor who live downtown,” said Vancouver resident Amy May, a non-smoker.
Charmaine Martin, a non-smoker with asthma who lives in Esther Short Commons, said she’s happy when smokers go across the street to Esther Short Park. She fears the smoking ban will simply push them back out onto the surrounding sidewalks, especially underneath her apartment window.
“They will stand there and smoke regardless of warnings and signs,” she said.
Occasional cigar user Gary Davenport felt smokers and non-smokers alike pay taxes and should be able to access parks. He sees the intent behind the smoking ban as more than protecting non-smokers from secondhand smoke. He thinks the city is simply trying to pressure smokers to stop an unhealthy habit.
“The point is to make it difficult for people to smoke so that they will be forced to quit,” Davenport said. “If that’s the case, let’s just take it to the next level and outlaw it and put it underground and treat it like any other drug in the country.”
Anti-smokers say public health is paramount
Proponents of the ban, in turn, quoted health statistics about the ill effects of smoking and of secondhand smoke.
Dr. Alan Melnick, the health officer for Clark County, listed studies that show the negative impacts of smoking in children and strongly supported the measure. He said the sight of youth smoking in a park is the wrong message for a community to send.
“I think this is an incredible health hazard, particularly for our youth.”
Theresa Cross had little sympathy for smokers, saying they have plenty of other options for finding a place to have a puff.
“This is not telling people who do use tobacco they can’t come to parks,” said Cross. “All this ordinance tells us is what you can’t do in parks.”
Stewart’s motion unsupported, Burkman’s raises eyebrows
As for the council itself, Jeanne Stewart and Jack Burkman were the only two councilors who expressed concern with aspects of the code changes.Stewart felt the code changes took the City Council out of the loop in terms of approving certain park fees, putting them in the hands of the parks director.
Parks Director Pete Mayer assured her that the council would remain informed of future fee increases as part of annual budget planning.
“You will have fee changes brought before you,” said Mayer.
Stewart also felt the fine was far too high and would feel like a permanent punishment.
“I’m concerned that a $1,000 fine for malfeasance in a park is excessive,” she said.
Stewart offered a motion to keep the fine at $300, but no other counselors would offer a second, so her motion died.
Burkman, a former smoker and chewing tobacco user himself, said he struggled with the idea of banning all forms of tobacco, when chewing tobacco didn’t seem to impact other park users the way smoking would. He felt an all-out ban was legislating individual behavior.
“I think that’s a line we may not want to cross,” he said.
Burkman proposed his own amendment to limit the tobacco ban only to smoking. Members of the audience gasped when counselor Burt Hansen seconded the motion.
“I think it is worthy of a vote,” Hansen said. “I won’t support it, but it deserves a vote.”
The motion failed 6 to 1.
Ultimately, after sharing more stories of their personal experiences with second hand smoke and exposure to tobacco in their youth, the council justified the full ban as a message that the city stood for a healthy and safe parks system.
“I value that this is a good policy change,” said councilor Larry Smith.
Vancouver City Council Meetings
415 W. 6th St. (2nd floor)
Regular session – first and third Monday of each month, 7 p.m. Public testimony accepted.
Consent meeting and citizen forum – second and fourth Monday of each month, 6:30 p.m.