Smokers continue to light up in city's parks despite ban

Just three citations issued in six months for minor infraction

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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A ban on tobacco in Vancouver's parks has been in effect for six months, but that doesn't mean that all puffing near the playgrounds has ceased.

On any given day, smokers can still be spotted puffing away on benches, sidewalks and on the green grass at Esther Short Park — all spots where tobacco use has been forbidden. Since January, the Vancouver Police Department has issued just three citations for tobacco use in a park.

Police just don't have time to hunt down minor infractions, spokeswoman Kim Kapp said. Vancouver Police Cmdr. George Delgado said in October 2011, as the city council debated the new law, that no new police staff will be added to enforce a smoking ban.

"We don't have officers available to get out of their car, walk through a park and look for something that's an infraction when there's higher-priority calls for service," Kapp said.

Another reason for the relatively low number of citations is that many officers prefer to give warnings and educate when a new law is enacted, she said.

The standard fine is $325, according to the Clark County District Court, where such minor cases are routed. One ticket, handed out on May 29, is currently pending, awaiting a court date. The recipients of two other tickets, filed on June 8 and July 2, now have arrest warrants out for failure to appear for their court dates.

Jasmine Pursley sat facing City Hall at the edges of Esther Short Park on Wednesday. "(Police) always come and talk to us, but I see other people out here smoking all the time," Pursley said.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, who lives on the north side of Esther Short Park, said that the city council's unanimous approval of the smoking ban in December wasn't just feel-good legislation.

People shirk the law in all areas — speeding, riding a bike without a helmet, running red lights — and get away with it. He added he also suspects many people don't know of the six-month-old law.

"Most reasonable people understand that there are not enough police officers, and that as a community we're not willing to pay the taxes necessary to have a police officer on every corner… looking for every single violation of our laws and ordinances," he said.

He said it was "prudent public policy" to put into place a law that keeps children and the general population away from the carcinogenic effects of secondhand smoke.

The Clark County Board of Commissioners declined to pass a similar tobacco ban in parks in the unincorporated areas of the county earlier this year.

Seeing all smoking and tobacco use fade away in Vancouver's parks will likely require a slow-moving culture change, said John Wiesman, director of Clark County Public Health. Wiesman's department, along with a coalition of parks backers, proposed the ban to both the Vancouver City Council and the county commission.

Both he and Leavitt noted that announcements and signs during concerts in Esther Short Park are helping to spread the word. Wiesman also noted that his department has temporary signs that event planners and neighbors can put in their local parks until Vancouver installs permanent signs, and that notes were included in many neighborhood newsletters announcing the change.

"I do think this is a culture change and it's going to take a while. In part, we're all counting on people who are there to help people be reminded that (parks are) tobacco-free," Wiesman said. "We are asking smokers to have some courtesy about where they smoke. It rests with smokers, as well with others to try and police this."

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall; andrea.damewood@columbian.com.