Smoke-Free Parks: Why Park and Recreation Departments Should Lead the Effort

By Hurdle, Justin | Parks & Recreation, October 2016 | Go to article overview

Smoke-Free Parks: Why Park and Recreation Departments Should Lead the Effort


Hurdle, Justin, Parks & Recreation


In an effort to recognize park and recreation's growing responsibility in promoting healthy communities, this summer the NRPA Board of Directors adopted a statement encouraging the establishment and maintenance of tobacco-free facilities. This decision by NRPA's leadership will protect the health of our workforce, visitors and the environment while aligning the profession with the views of forward-thinking cities, states and public-health officials.

In many communities, parks and outdoor public spaces act as a relaxing refuge for all. It is also quite possible that, for many users, these outdoor spaces may be the only available places to be in-touch with nature and enjoy access to clean, fresh air. Public outdoor spaces need to remain open and accessible, and prohibiting smoking in these areas will enhance the user experience while also benefiting the environment.

Clearing the Air

Across the country, municipal governments have passed ordinances banning smoking in public parks and on public beaches. The American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation reports that, as of July 1, more than 1,260 municipalities have tobacco-free park laws on the books. This includes a diverse list of big cities like Boston, Los Angeles and Houston, as well as smaller towns like Jasper, Alabama; Sylvania, Ohio; and Wellington, Colorado. According to Joe Turner, director of the Houston, Texas, Parks and Recreation Department, the city "needed help ensuring that we had the tools to prevent a range of antisocial behavior in our parks." Turner, who was appointed director in 2004 and is soon set to retire, continues, "The smoking ban gave us the chance to work with our staff and the public health community to ensure all of Houston had access to safe, clean parks."

As we are focusing on tobacco-free policies in parks and outdoor public spaces, it is important to understand who uses parks and what the public thinks about tobacco-free policies. A 2015 national study commissioned by NRPA found that 70 percent of both men and women use their local parks occasionally or frequently. Of those respondents, ages 15 to 55, more than 70 percent said they are at least occasional park users. Finally, 87 percent of those living in a household with five or more people reported using parks at least occasionally.

The usage statistics are important to note in the context of public opinion regarding public smoking bans and can be useful when making policy proposals. The polling organization Gallup has found the general public to be supportive of smoking bans in all public places, increasing from just 39 percent in 2001 to 58 percent in 2015. Drilling down further, Gallup found that 68 percent of women and 47 percent of men support bans, as well as 46 percent of 18-29-year-olds and 58 percent of 30-49-year-olds.

Local public opinion is more difficult to pin down, but a review of 89 public opinion surveys, published in 2015 in the journal Tobacco Control, showed that support for tobacco-free school-grounds and playgrounds is almost always above 80 percent. In addition, surveys conducted in several states focused specifically on parks and green spaces produced smoking ban support ranging from 34 to 60 percent. Much of the difference in support between bans involving "playgrounds" and "parks and green spaces" is likely because people tend to associate playgrounds with children, and are more likely to advocate keeping tobacco away from kids (although, to be sure, children are sure to be found in all the aforementioned settings). …

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