Monday, April 04, 2005

Corvallis, Oregon to Consider Banning Smoking in Parks

The Corvallis City Council will soon consider a proposal to ban smoking in all parks, according to Portland's CBS affiliate (KOIN). The article lists several other Oregon communities that have banned smoking in parks, including Wasco County, which apparently does not allow smoking in either parks or their associated parking lots. The new trend in consideration of proposals to ban smoking in non-enclosed, outdoor public places seems to have been initiated by the passage in 2000 in Friendship Heights, Maryland of a law banning smoking in all public places, including outdoors. That law included "smoking on sidewalks, streets, patches of grass or any other area owned by the village." It was presumably the first smoking ordinance to include not only enclosed public places, but areas outside the enclosed areas (such as sidewalks, streets, parking lots, etc.).

The Rest of the Story

Since the power to enact public health laws such as smoking bans in public places derives from the state's police powers, which must be exercised with reason (see preceding post), I do not see a general justification for banning smoking in outdoor places that are not enclosed. Our public health policy initiatives must be based on reasonable evidence of a public health need, and I am not aware of data suggesting that outdoor exposure to secondhand smoke in open places is a significant health hazard. I also do not find it reasonable to expect that people cannot take measures to avoid secondhand smoke exposure in most open public places, like parks and parking lots. The situation is different in some outdoor places that are enclosed, such as a stadium or outdoor section of a restaurant where people are relatively confined and there may be exceptions when the limitation on smoking is placed for reasons other than protection from secondhand smoke (such as not wanting smoking to take place in a children's area, such as a school playground) . But in general, for an open, outdoor public place, I simply do not find a strong public health justification for intervening.

I think that public health practitioners may actually do more harm than good by promoting such measures. It casts the idea of regulating smoking in public places as being overly intrusive and takes the focus away from the real issue that is most relevant to such regulations - health risks to exposed employees in enclosed workplaces. By framing the issue in a way that detracts from the proper use of the state's police powers, general outdoor smoking bans may actually undermine efforts to protect employees who are heavily exposed and actually need protection.

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