Local governments will be nudged to go smoke-free in parks and some other public places

Visit Sam Benn Park and you’re likely to see children playing on the brand new playground equipment. You might also see adults nearby, smoking cigarettes.

Smoking is allowed at parks in Aberdeen, but a new federal grant will urge local officials to reconsider the policy.

Public health divisions across Grays Harbor, Thurston and Lewis counties have received a federal grant to push to create smoke-free environments in city parks, on library grounds and government campuses.

Grays Harbor is the lead entity for the $292,000 grant that will be partially split with Thurston and Lewis counties. Mason and Pacific counties may also qualify for the next round of Community Transformation Grants, which is spearheaded by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Grays Harbor Public Health Director Joan Brewster said the grant also encourages local governments to build more walking trails and bike paths when road paving projects are done and to help businesses do more wellness programs to promote healthier living.

Grays Harbor County is also receiving help from a University of Washington specialist to do outreach for businesses and offer better nutrition and physical activities.

“The emphasis on the Community Transformation Grant is on policies that will change the environment in a way that will make it more healthy to the public,” Brewster said. “A policy that removes exposure to second-hand smoke will have lasting benefits and will protect people all of the time. The same is true if we look at safe streets, making streets a safer place for walkers, bikers and cars to exist together, where streets are built at certain specifications for all those activities with safe boundaries for all of them.”

Community health specialists are already starting on their anti-smoking pitch, focusing on smoke-free government campuses and smoke-free outdoor venues like parks, fairs and trails.

Aberdeen Parks Director Karl Harris welcomes the discussion. He said his office has flirted with the idea of having smoke-free parks for a few years now, although nothing has ever been formally presented to the City Council.

Harris said the main talk has been on a self-policing kind of policy, where signs are put up urging those at parks not to smoke.

“We just got a smoking complaint the other day,” Harris said. “It’s rare, but it happens. As the Parks Department, we’re into healthy lifestyles and promoting fitness and active people. There are parks up and down the I-5 corridor that are completely smoke free. And I think smoking around children, around playgrounds and leisure-time activity is not a good thing.”

County Commissioner Herb Welch says he’s on the fence over the issue.

For the past year, Welch has been fighting lung cancer, which he thinks was caused in part because he smoked for 40 years. He quit about 12 years ago. He’s been undergoing aggressive cancer treatments for many months now.

“I know first-hand that smoking is dangerous,” Welch said. “On the other hand, I really wonder whether this is an issue we should be legislating to fix. Is this something we really should be getting involved in? That’s a question I’ll be asking myself for a while as this issue comes before us.”

By a citizen-approved initiative, smoking is already banned inside buildings and is also banned within 25 feet of doorways.

Brewster says she envisions city and county parks with smoke-free signs on them providing a positive message that re-enforces the fact that smoking is not good for anyone’s health.

“What this program would do is encourage policy-making bodies to adopt non-smoking restrictions to their own land,” Brewster said. “We don’t have the authority to do that but we’d like to show them a way to adopt smoke-free policies and provide sample policies. …

“It’s not likely local governments would use precious man hours to issue citations for that purpose,” Brewster added. “Signage is the number-one strategy. Those that have approved non-smoking campuses find that signage has been pretty effective. People understand 25 feet from a door is not acceptable. And people have made the physical adjustments to that.”

At the county-owned Pearsall Building in Aberdeen, home to Public Heath and District Court, Brewster installed signs with pictures of babies and cautions in both Spanish and English on the walkway urging visitors to smoke somewhere else.

“What we were finding were that pregnant mothers and mothers with young babies were going through clouds of unhealthy smoke to get into the building,” Brewster said.

Brewster hopes to start the planning process right away, although says it may take a very long time to get support from some local governments.

Officials with Thurston County Public Health met with the Timberland Regional Library Board of Trustees last week to push the board to establish smoke-free campuses. The library district encompasses all five counties — Grays Harbor, Lewis, Thurston, Mason and Pacific counties — under the grant request.

Leanne Ingle, communications specialist with the library district, said the issue is now being discussed by Timberland’s Policy Committee.

“This has just been introduced and I’m not sure if there’s been a positive reception yet,” Ingle said.

Ingle noted that the board could only approve a non-smoking ban on library campuses on libraries that the district owns, such as Montesano, Ocean Park and Hoodsport. The majority of libraries are owned by cities, she points out, and it would be up to individual city councils to ban smoking on those campuses.

Brewster said she or her staff do plan to meet with various city councils and mayors to talk about the benefits of a non-smoking campus.

She spoke with the Grays Harbor County commissioners about the idea last week, telling them the plans under the grant, although nothing was approved at that point.

County Commissioner Terry Willis said she’s worried a smoking ban at county facilities could place an unfair burden on county employees.

“I’m also worried what effect a ban would cause on neighboring businesses,” Willis said. “If we don’t allow smoking here, would smokers move to the closest business with an awning? Would we be putting our problem on to someone else?”

Grays Harbor Fair Director Mike Bruner said that smoking is currently not allowed inside buildings or within 25 feet of doorways at the fairgrounds.

“I’m very interested in being part of these discussions,” Bruner said. “We can say ‘this is a no smoking place’, but what’s the recourse when someone rents the facility? How do we enforce that?”

Brewster said she imagines a piece-meal approach to non-smoking may be the best fit. For instance, maybe a no smoking policy is established for a few parks or local government buildings, instead of everywhere.

“I can see potential for smoke-free public housing,” Brewster said. “Residents should have the opportunity to choose a housing situation that is smoke free.”

Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen established a non-smoking campus in August of 2010.

Hospital spokesman David Quigg said the policy has been rather effective.

“We don’t want patients breathing second-hand smoke,” Quigg said. “I’ve personally had a chance to explain to smokers about the policy and no one has ever said anything negative to me. They understand completely.”

Quigg said the hospital has given help to hospital employees who want to quit smoking and has had a pretty good success rate.

“I smoked for 15 years and finally was able to quit four years ago,” Quigg said. “I know how hard it can be.”

Quigg said that some smokers, including employees, still find a way to smoke by going completely off the hospital’s property. Other people smoke in the parking lot and in their cars.

Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3927, or by email at sfriederich@thedailyworld.com