"It's something we've been looking at for some time," County Executive Ken Ulman said in an interview, adding that it's another goal toward making "Howard County the healthiest county it can be." Smoking, he said, "is not in keeping with that. It's a dirty, filthy habit."
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"We believe public health is a priority," said Dr. Peter Beilenson, the county's health officer. "We used to have designated smoking spaces, but it concentrates the problem. It's clearly a detriment to people's health."
Beilenson said the county has one of the lowest smoking rates in the state, between an estimated 9 percent and 10 percent, according to the most recent national Behavioral Risk Factor Survey. But the health officer said the county had a lower ranking for physical activity, which officials hope to improve.
"The vast majority of Howard County does not smoke," Beilenson said. "Public property is meant to be enjoyed by the majority."
Several people interviewed at Centennial Park on Monday said they don't see many smokers but they supported the ban. "Secondhand smoke has been proven to have negative effects." said Ray Humphries, a 59-year-old Columbia resident,.
Jamie Kuykendall, 28, from Baltimore County, who also was visiting the park, had mixed feelings on the ban.
"If you're outside and you want to kill yourself, it's not a big deal," Kuykendall said. But, she added, "It will be great for kids not to be exposed to secondhand smoke. I'm sure it will be good for the wildlife."
Michael J. McFadden, author of "Dissecting Antismokers' Brains" and the director of the Mid-Atlantic region of the Smokers Club and Citizens Freedom Alliance, said Ulman's regulations go too far.
"There is no health justification for such outdoor bans," McFadden said in an email. The statement added that "no studies that have ever been done have shown any degree of harm to anyone from the highly diluted occasional scent of someone's smoke that they might encounter outdoors."
He continued: "And there is very little 'annoyance' justification for such bans since it is almost always a matter of a simple moment or two to move slightly to avoid such smoke as might exist."
Other states have enacted or are considering measures that eliminate smoking in some outdoor areas, such as some parks and playgrounds, and in sidewalk dining areas. New York City recently imposed one of the most stringent outdoor smoking bans in the country, to include not just parks, but all beaches, boardwalks and other public spaces.
Ulman, who has asthma and admitted to taking a few puffs in his youth, said he wants to protect the rights of nonsmokers who use the park. "You're really not out in the open," he said. "It doesn't mean it's not being blown into someone's face."
The Howard County ban is one of several measures by the Ulman administration to promote healthier lifestyles. Howard has prohibited minors from using tanning beds, becoming one of the most restrictive localities in the nation. County leaders are also providing healthcare to uninsured residents by giving them financial incentives to use urgent care facilities rather than emergency rooms.
In 1993, Howard County was the first to announce a ban on smoking in every public place, excluding bars. It was to have taken effect three years later, but the Maryland General Assembly enacted a statewide ban forbidding smoking in offices, factories, stores and other indoor workplaces in 1995. The law made some exceptions for hotels, restaurants, private clubs and bars.
Howard was among the first counties in the state to extend the smoking ban to inside bars. Baltimore City followed and a statewide prohibition took effect in February 2008. Now, Howard County is extending its ban even further.
While smoking will be banned at county parks in Howard, state parks, such as Patapsco Valley State Park, which straddles Howard and Baltimore counties, only limit smoking indoors, a state Natural Resources spokesman said.
At national parks, smoking is not permitted in historic and visitor center buildings, said Fort McHenry's Ranger Vincent Vaise. "I don't know of any parks that completely ban it, but I do know that most nature parks do not allow smoking on the nature trails in the woods," he said.
Vaise, who is the chief of interpretation at Fort McHenry National Monument, said smoking is not permitted in the shrine area of Fort McHenry — one of Maryland's best known national parks.
At Centennial Park, people interviewed said they were put off by the litter left by some smokers.
"I think that's a good decision," Sean Gronholt, a 25-year-old Columbia resident, said of the ban. "Most smokers throw away their litter, but there is that one in one hundred that don't. That adds up. Aside from some hurt feelings, I don't think there will be any real detriment."
Beilenson said cigarette butts are a "sizable percentage of the stuff picked up in the parks." He said it can be dangerous to wildlife who eat discarded cigarette butts and it creates additional work for crews who maintain park spaces.
County officials said that people caught smoking in a park would be asked to stop, and, if they refused, asked to leave. They said violators could be assessed civil fines between $500 and $1,000 for refusing to vacate the property.
Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Baughman contributed to this article