Howard's ban on smoking in parks is first, likely not last

Howard has become the first county in Maryland to completely ban smoking at its parks, but it will likely not be the last.

"We will see counties all over the state doing this," County Executive Ken Ulman said following a news conference Wednesday at Centennial Park, where he signed the executive order that prohibits smoking at the county's 57 parks.

Many other jurisdictions have already placed some restrictions on smokers outdoors, prohibiting smoking on playgrounds or athletic fields or during major events.

Howard was one of the first counties to introduce an indoor smoking ban for every public place, excluding bars, in 1993; in 2007, it was one of the first to expand the ban to bars. The county had already prohibited smoking near playgrounds, athletic fields and other gathering places.

"I applaud Ken Ulman," said Barry F. Williams, the Baltimore County parks director. He said Baltimore County could explore similar options in hopes of promoting better health.

Williams said smoking is not a major concern at Baltimore County parks: "For the most part, people are considerate."

But Williams added that using parks to promote better health while at the same time permitting smoking "sounds like an oxymoron."

In Anne Arundel County, where smoking is partially prohibited at ball fields and concerts, County Executive John R. Leopold said the county would consider a stricter outdoor ban, similar to Howard's: "If there is a need, I would be interested in expanding."

Ulman acknowledged that Howard isn't the first to take on the issue, noting restrictions in other counties, but he said a partial ban wouldn't be as effective in promoting exercise and fitness activities at parks.

"We're trying to change the culture of the parks," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the health officer for Howard County and the former Baltimore City health commissioner. He said people complied when indoor smoking bans were introduced and that in the three years since the smoking bans began at bars, the health department has received no complaints. After Wednesday's news conference, he said response to the ban has been mostly positive.

But not everyone would like to see outdoor smoking bans expand.

"I'm hoping other counties do not follow that course of action," said Bruce C. Bereano, an Annapolis lawyer who is a registered lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Tobacco & Candy Distributors.

Smoking is "no one else's business. It's something that's legal and lawful," he said, adding that the ban unfairly "presumes smokers are inconsiderate."

Bereano mentioned another measure that the Maryland General Assembly has considered, which would prevent smoking in cars carrying children.

"This is a democracy. Where do you go next?" Bereano said. "People who smoke have rights. They need to have balance. To think otherwise is offensive."

Since 2001, Carroll County has limited smoking and use of tobacco products within 50 yards of an athletic field but has stopped short of a total ban.

"We didn't want to infringe on people's rights," said Jeff R. Degitz, administrator for Carroll's parks department.

While Carroll doesn't receive many complaints about smokers, he said many of the parks are not regularly staffed, so park employees may not hear every complaint. "There's always an issue of litter, but not just [by] smokers," he said.

He predicted that outdoor bans would continue to expand, adding that more private facilities have already gone smoke-free.

Bethany Beach, Del., has also recently banned smoking on its boardwalk, and several colleges, including Howard Community College, have gone smoke-free within the last year, Ulman said.

In the same week that Ulman announced the Howard ban, the Montgomery County Council passed a bill prohibiting smoking in common areas of multiple-family housing and some playgrounds.

Montgomery County Councilman George Leventhal, who sponsored the bill, said it stopped short of a countywide ban because the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has authority over its county parks, as well as those in Prince George's County.

Leventhal said he's looking into ways to create a more comprehensive smoking ban similar to Howard's.

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