Published: July 10, 2013
Smoking in public parks? Why, there oughta be a law!
Too often we turn to the blunt instrument of lawmaking to resolve a dilemma. To eliminate obesity, New York City limits the size of soft drinks served at restaurants. Mississippi, the fattest state in the union, passed a law that forbids anyone from passing a law like New York's. To curb animal abuse and neglect, Boulder passed a law in 2000 that changes the term "pet owner" in city code to "guardian."
Another law prevents Coloradans from collecting rain in barrels, even though almost no one enforces it and home and garden stores openly sell barrels marketed for collecting rain.
A law is a complex, expensive and potentially dangerous means of altering common human behavior and should be used sparingly as a final resort.
So we ask city officials to tread with caution while considering the latest plea for a ban on smoking in city parks.
Mayor Steve Bach floated the idea last year, and it arose again Monday when Karen Palus, the city's director of parks, recreation and cultural services, asked the City Council to ban smoking in most city parks.
"The intent of the proposal is to reduce the detrimental heath impacts of secondhand smoke on citizens, to provide the full enjoyment of the recreational aspects of parks facilities, to reduce litter and to protect the city's park and recreation properties from extreme fire danger in the Pikes Peak region," Palus said. That's quite a list.
While those all sound like good reasons for a new law, any real benefits should be weighed against another goal: keeping government out of our lives to the greatest extent possible.
Smokers have already been banished from places of public accommodation, including the spaces in which they work. Parks, in which secondhand smoke is not confined and quickly drifts up and away from bystanders, have played an important role in facilitating other smoking bans. Smokers who cannot get their fix at the office or coffee shop can stand on public space, which belongs to them, and enjoy a cigarette. Yes, it's annoying to those who do not smoke. But so are a lot of activities society tolerates in an effort to guard liberty. People who love dogs share parks with people who fear dogs. People who hate perfume find themselves in close quarters with those who coat themselves in it. People who walk and ride bicycles share the world with those who drive big, loud, dangerous cars that pollute our water and air.
This latest effort at a smoking ban includes a new twist, in the wake of major wildfires. Palus said the ban would help reduce fire danger.
If that's true, the proposal deserves serious consideration. While fire concerns may have merit, we cannot remember the last time a wildfire originated in a city park in the middle of town. If fire mitigation is the objective, then let's take a more surgical approach and look at parks and city open space in wooded and remote areas only.
If cigarette butts in parks are an ugly source of litter, simply enforce laws against littering. A city that can enforce a ban on smoking can just as easily enforce a ban on the improper disposal of used cigarettes.
One problem with ill-conceived laws involves the law of unintended consequences. Every action causes a reaction, and all laws result in some form of blowback. Sometimes the cost of the cure exceeds that of the disease. Society long ago concluded that prohibition of alcohol caused more problems than it solved.
In the event a smoking ban would work, one wonders what smokers may do when they can no longer step into a park for a nicotine fix. They might choose to smoke somewhere in which the dangers of wayward butts and secondhand smoke are even worse.
Bach and an assortment of other city leaders have great visions and expectations for a downtown renaissance that will take this community to an exciting new level. Let's focus on what we can bring to this city and spend less time regulating the activities of individuals who live and work here and indulge an unfortunate vice that has been part of the American experience since this country began.