Smoking bans extend to the great outdoors

Lighted cigarettes are a thing of the past at Pirone Park in Ayer. Lighted cigarettes are a thing of the past at Pirone Park in Ayer.
(Ellen Harasimowicz for The Boston Globe
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / October 29, 2009

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It was a recent trip to the park that finally did it.

Jason Mayo watched as a father pushed his child on a swing, cigarette clenched between his teeth. On every upswing, the child got a face full of exhaled smoke.

“We can’t tell people how to parent,’’ said Mayo, a member of the Ayer parks and recreation committee, which has banned smoking in the town’s recreation areas. “But all the other kids around him were inhaling that cigarette too.’’

As antismoking sentiment sweeps across the country, nonsmokers are taking back bars, restaurants, and workplaces, snuffing smoking out of its indoor havens. And now some of them are turning their sights on the great outdoors.

Holliston and Upton have enacted similar outdoor smoking bans. And in another example of the widespread public crackdown on smoking, Needham has outlawed the sale of cigarettes in pharmacies and Newton and Framingham are trying to do the same.

Ayer’s parks and recreation committee implemented its outdoor ban in August, and the panel may also pursue a bylaw at the spring Town Meeting. In a more sweeping stroke, the town’s Board of Health is pursuing a regulation that would apply the prohibition to all town-owned property and land and impose a $100 fine on offenders. The board has set a public hearing on the subject for January.

The outdoor smoking ban in Ayer, a town of about 3,000, covers public recreation areas, including Sandy Pond Beach and Pirone Park. During the past five years roughly 30 communities have enacted such bans, according to Joan Hamlett, Ayer’s tobacco agent and director of the North Central-Franklin County Tobacco Control Alliance. Sharon was the first to do so in 1995.

Depending on the town or city, bans can apply to all parks, beaches, and public places, or just one or two, Hamlett said. There’s been little opposition, she said, and smokers, whether they like it or not, follow the rules.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, when a smoker sees a sign that they cannot smoke, they abide by it,’’ she said, adding that there hasn’t been a ticket issued yet in the cities and towns with statutes.

“It’s self-enforcing,’’ she said.

In a similar measure, a handful of cities are restricting smokers’ access to cigarettes. Such is the case in Boston, Needham, and Uxbridge, which have banned tobacco sales at pharmacies and drugstores. Framingham and Newton are attempting to establish such a statute. If all goes as planned, Newton will have its ban in place by the end of the year, said Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan.

Selling tobacco products in pharmacies and drugstores sends a mixed message, Hess-Mahan said. For example, a person afflicted with emphysema or lung cancer goes in to pick up a prescription and, while doing so, may have to fight the urge to pick up a pack of cigarettes.

“It’s like sending a heroin addict to a clinic where they’ve got pushers right outside the door,’’ he said. “It defeats the purpose.’’

Antitobacco activists and officials contend that the increase in antismoking statutes have largely been prompted by the statewide smoking ban, which was implemented in 2004.

“People have gotten used to a pretty smoke-free existence,’’ said D.J. Wilson, tobacco control director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Even so, there are an estimated 43.4 million smokers across the country - about 20 percent of the adult population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - and they’re lighting up when and where they still can.

As a result, Hamlett said, she is hearing a different range of complaints these days, usually related to smoke wafting in through open windows and in apartment buildings.

Wilson, meanwhile, pointed to the disparity in cigarettes being prohibited in indoor environments but still allowed in many outdoor spaces.

People “put down their chair at the beach and someone’s smoking right next to them,’’ he said.

Emphasizing the dichotomy, he said that, in the “cleanest, most natural place, you can have someone smoking next to you.’’

In most cases, though, outdoor bans are prompted by concerns over sanitation and litter, as much as a desire to reduce the adverse effects of second-hand smoke.

In Ayer, officials at a recent public meeting, which only attracted three residents, said they’re dismayed by the large number of cigarette butts littering the beach and the park, and are also concerned about children picking up discarded cigarettes and putting them in their mouths.

“I’m not interested in fining people, I’m not interested in stopping smoking, nor do I see us making gobs of money off this,’’ said parks and recreation committee chairman Tim Taylor. A smoker for more than 20 years - he quit in 1991 - he said he’s unsympathetic to the smoker’s cause. “I just don’t want to see cigarette butts all over the ground.’’

Yet at the same time, it is an air-quality issue as well.

“Secondhand smoke is bad,’’ said committee vice chairman Peter Page.

Also, it sends a bad message.

“If a kid sees an adult smoking,’’ Page said, “it might lead them to think it’s cool.’’

Mayo, a former smoker, said it’s unappealing to “just smell cigarette smoke in the middle of a baseball field and have wafts of smoke blowing in your face while watching a game.

He said he can understand that smokers want the freedom to light up when and where they want. But being a baseball coach, he added that, “When kids are involved, it becomes more of an issue for me.’’