Smoking banned in Vancouver’s parks

Debate pits health concerns against discrimination fears

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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In 30 days, all smoking and tobacco use will be stubbed out in Vancouver’s parks and recreation centers.

Following lengthy testimony from public health officials and residents concerned about discrimination against smokers, the city council approved the controversial new law unanimously Monday night.

The law also clarifies rules banning drinking (with exceptions for permitted special events) and also creates a process for the parks director to approve temporary expulsions of troublemakers from parks.

Several speakers, including current and former residents of the Vancouver Housing Authority’s Esther Short Commons apartment building downtown, said they don’t want to see smokers further squeezed in where they can puff.

“It’s discriminating against a certain group of people,” said Vancouver resident Amy May, who lived in Esther Short Commons and is not a smoker. “It reminds me of not allowing people of color to be in certain areas …it’s a subtle form of assault. It’s an issue of bias against the poor who live downtown.”

Another woman who lives in Esther Short Commons and suffers from asthma said she was worried the ban, which also makes smoking illegal on sidewalks adjacent to parks, would push smokers across the street and underneath her window.

But public health officials, parks commission members and other residents set it up as a fight against the carcinogenic effects of secondhand smoke, as well as a public health policy statement about the overall dangers of tobacco.

“I have no objection to smokeless tobacco, as long as they swallow the product,” said Sonya Rowe, adding that her parents smoked and she’s suffered from lifelong cardiopulmonary issues. The ban isn’t discriminating against the poor, she said, adding that she’s “amazed at how much food and shelter that could be purchased for the price they put up in smoke. It erases all traces of sympathy.”

Vancouver resident Florence Wager, who has been a longtime advocate for parks, pleaded with the council to get rid of smoking. Smokers get by fine on cross-country flights, and in bars and restaurants, all of which now prohibit smoking.

“I sincerely believe that parks are for healthy living,” Wager said.

The council went back and forth on whether it was necessary to also ban smokeless tobacco. Councilor Jack Burkman, fearing that government was crossing the line, said he believed nicotine gum would also fall under the ban. The city attorney said it would not. Burkman then tried to amend the rule to ban only smoking in city parks, not all tobacco products. It failed 6 to 1.

The council ultimately rallied around a total ban on all tobacco products in city parks. Vancouver Police Cmdr. George Delgado said in October that no new police staff will be added to enforce a smoking ban. Rather, if an officer is already in a park, she or he could issue a citation to those violating the law. “When we’re in a park and notice a violation, we now have clear guidelines,” Delgado said.

“I’m excited and nervous right now, because I’ve wanted something like this for practically all my life,” Councilor Jeanne Harris said before casting her vote to ban tobacco. “(Smoking) makes me gag just thinking about it. It is just something I can’t see us saying its OK to do. It’s not about rights or discrimination. It’s about health.”

Several speakers were also worried about wording in updates to the parks code, which hasn’t been updated since 1969. Some felt rules against amplified sound, or the practice of sports such as baseball, badminton and disc golf in areas not marked for such use, were too vague. Violation of parks code can be a misdemeanor punishable by 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.

But City Attorney Ted Gathe reassured the council that the wording had already been there for decades, and it was there to stop people who egregiously violate policy, not to keep a father and son from tossing a football or to prevent a group from playing a stereo at a reasonable level.

“This is a maximum fine, not just a (set) fine. It’s up to a judge to determine to fine someone $1,000 or jail them up to 90 days for parks code violation — which is highly unlikely,” Gathe said. “It’s very, very rare to see these kinds of cases put to prosecution.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall