Sweet Breeze: Westminster parks go tobacco free

If the air around Westminster parks seems a little fresher lately, it might be due to the 54 newly designated smoke-free zones at 13 of the city’s 14 park properties. Signs designating the area within 50 yards of each sign were put up the weekend of June 14, according to Missie Wilcox, marketing consultant for the city.

“As you can imagine, our parks and recreation facilities are used by so many people. They are used for sports games from lacrosse to baseball, they are used for mommy and me groups and play dates,” Wilcox said. “We really wanted to ensure that when our residents go to enjoy a park that it is genuinely an enjoyable experience. That when you go out in the fresh air, it really is fresh air.”

The smoke-free zones were selected based on areas where children and families tend to congregate and recreate the most, according to Wilcox. While Belle Grove Square, which lacks any play areas, has no designated areas, Westminster City Park has 10 such areas, including the basketball courts, playgrounds and baseball back stops. The smaller King Park has only six designated areas, including the volleyball court and the picnic pavilion.

All of the picnic pavilions at Westminster parks have been designated as nonsmoking areas, according to Abby Gruber, director of Westminster Recreation and Parks.

“One of the main reasons for designating the pavilions was not so much the play factor, but more so for the fact that that’s where we see a lot of people that will congregate and smoke cigarettes,” Gruber said. “Then we have a hygienic issue as far as the amount of cigarette butts left behind. Nobody wants to picnic near an ashtray.”

Gruber spearheaded the initiative to have the signs installed after spending a lot of time at park properties led to her having an epiphany.

“It hit me one day that we had people smoking in very close proximity to where we have children playing,” Gruber said. “I thought that was really a conflict of interest. If we have healthy lungs being outside and active, we don’t want them inhaling secondhand smoke.”

Gruber began speaking with Barbara White, director of the Cigarette Restitution Fund program at the Carroll County Health Department, about ways they might ago about reducing smoking near children’s play areas. It turned out the Health Department had $4,500 in monies available from the Cigarette Restitution Fund of Maryland that were set aside for just the sort of project Gruber had in mind.

“It moved really quickly from the initial conversation, to inception and actual application,” Gruber said. “It was sometime in late January that I was notified of the funding opportunity and ... we were notified of the grant award in March. The opportunity was for this fiscal year, meaning it had to be fulfilled by June 30, the end of the state’s fiscal year.”

Designating park areas as non-smoking zones is in line with current state-wide trends in banning smoking based on the scientific evidence of the dangers of secondhand smoke, according to White.

“The World Health Organization has stated that the scientific evidence shows there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke,” White said. “We know that kids are particularly susceptible for a lot of reasons: Their lungs are small, they breathe faster and many times they don’t have the ability to get up and move away from it — they are stuck with the adult that is smoking. Having a zone where kids can be at play and not be exposed to smoke would be a very positive.”

At the same time, smoking is not being banned in all areas of Westminster Parks, nor are the bans currently enforced by a fine or other police action, according to Gruber.

“We don’t want to beat anybody over the head with this, we just want to make people aware of the choices they are making and how they affect those around them,” Gruber said. “It’s more of an awareness campaign than an enforcement campaign.”

The hope, according to Wilcox, is that the signs will help catalyze a change in local culture, where even those that choose to smoke will recognize the importance of giving those that choose not to, and those too young to decide, a breath of fresh air.

“I think it is really continuing the trend of creating a healthier air environment for our children and families,” she said. “The parks department is in the lead in making Westminster a more pleasant place to live and play.”

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or