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Will mayor, group ignite effort to end smoking in Chicago parks?

Smokers may no longer be allowed to light up cigarettes as they watch bands play at Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, Riot Fest or North Coast music festivals in Chicago.

That’s if a push to ban smoking in the city’s nearly 600 city parks – some of them home to big-ticket concerts – gains traction. At one point Mayor Emanuel backed such a plan, but in recent days his staff didn’t sound as enthusiastic about making park visitors kiss their ash goodbye.

But the possibility of a ban in parks has smokers fired up.

“First bars, and now parks?” said Paul Odrobina, 20, as he smoked a Camel cigarette near Cricket Hill – part of the city’s lakefront park system - in Uptown, where he was working on a film set. “As a smoker, it’s just banning us from everywhere. Soon, we won’t be able to smoke except in our own houses,” said Odrobina, who lives in Roscoe Village.

Months after Emanuel took office in 2011, he issued a “Healthy Chicago” public health agenda and listed making parks smoke-free as a policy he wanted to pursue.

But his public statement after the smoking ban idea resurfaced in August by the Respiratory Health Association during Smoking Cessation Awareness Week stopped short of nudging the Chicago Park District to ban smoking in all its parks.

“City Hall is aware of the request to expand the city’s existing 100 percent smokefree beaches policy to all parks and will explore it further,” according to a statement issued by Emanuel’s office.

In Chicago, smoking has been snuffed out, by law, at restaurants, bars, beaches and within 15 feet of park fieldhouses and playgrounds.

Emanuel “strongly supports smoke-free policies such as these because they create an environment that encourages smokers to quit and discourages kids from ever picking up the habit in the first place,” his statement said.

A ban is under consideration at the park district, said Kiera Ellis, park district spokeswoman. “We want to promote a healthy environment. We are pro-children and pro-wellness,” she said in an email. But it’s unclear whether park officials are close to acting on any proposals to expand the smoking ban to parks.

The park district’s board of commissioners, whose vote would be the final say on the matter, “will consider balancing the freedom of being in a public space and the negative effects of smoking,” Ellis said.

Officials with the Respiratory Health Association have been talking to the park district in the past year and made a presentation to the park district board in April urging them to ban smoking in the parks. Health, park and environmental advocates have been asked to reach out to the park district’s board of commissioners as well.

“I’m a little disappointed we haven’t done it yet in Chicago,” said Joel Africk, president and CEO of the Respiratory Health Association. “We have a great smoke-free law, probably one of the best in the nation. We have a mayor who is highly focused on health. That’s why I’m a little surprised it hasn’t happened sooner.”

In 2007, the park district board passed a smoking ban at beaches advocated by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, which picked up thousands of discarded cigarette butts during beach cleanups, according to the Tribune. Separately, Chicago City Council has passed the Clean Indoor Air ordinance – which prohibits smoking in restaurants, bars, enclosed sports arenas, concert halls and inside other public places.

Ellis could not immediately say why parks were not included when the beach ban was passed by the park district.

Banning smoking at parks would help promote a healthy lifestyle, protect the public from second-hand smoke exposure, cut down on the cigarette butt litter and encourage the smokers who want to quit to be successful, Africk said.

“Providing fewer places where one can smoke just means less temptation for smokers who are trying to quit,” Africk said.

He said there’s public support for a ban, pointing to a 2012 survey commissioned by the Respiratory Health Association that found nearly 60 percent of Chicago adults back a smoke-free parks policy.

“It’s a good idea because lots of kids play and practice at the park,” said Bianca Payne, 27, a nanny who lives in Bridgeport. “It’s gross when you smell cigarettes and children are playing outside.”

Logan Square resident George Cruz said smoking shouldn’t be allowed in parks where he grills and his children play soccer. “If you barbecue with the kids and then you have to smell cigarette smoke and marijuana smoke, then that’s a problem,” said Cruz, 38.

The mayor’s office has touted Emanuel’s tobacco control record. Recent measures that targeted smokers include raising the city’s tobacco tax that, combined with county, state and federal taxes, is the highest in the country at $7.17 per pack; banning the use of e-cigarettes at indoor public places; and requiring the sale of e-cigarettes from behind counters.

Smokers questioned where the middle ground was and whether the fine that likely would accompany the ban was a way for the city to get more money.

Michael Peterson, 30, said banning smoking in parks can be a “slippery slope,” speculating on whether he’ll be told not to drink soda in front of children next. “Eventually, it’s going to be nothing but regulation,” said the Loop resident, who smokes.The effort is not aimed at punishing smokers, Africk said.

“We are not trying to outlaw smoking. But where the smoking affects other people’s enjoyment of the parks, we think it should be restricted,” Africk said.

Smokers who light up at beaches and playgrounds can get slapped with a ticket with a fine up to $500. People who smoke in violation of the city’s smoking ban on bars and restaurants can be fined up to $250.

Enforcement on a no-smoking law in the parks should not be a revenue-generator, Africk said, but instead should rely on reminders of the rule from park district personnel. The city’s current smoke-free law has become self-enforcing, he said, meaning businesses and patrons police themselves and report violations.

Some tickets have been reportedly issued over the years to businesses violating the smoking ban. On its website, the city said compliance of its ordinance is “widespread,” with the city averaging two dozen reports of violations a month.

“We’re really not trying to involve the police in this. Based on the experience in other cities, we do not believe enforcement will be a problem,” Africk said.

Chicago can apply the best practices from other cities that have enacted a smoking ban in parks, said Cassandra Francis, president of Friends of the Parks, which supports a parks smoking ban.

“You can ban it all day long but making sure it’s effectively enforced given it’s a very large park system, we hope and are happy to be involved in planning for that,” Francis said.

Other cities across the nation including New York and in Illinois such as Oak Park have banned smoking in parks.

“It’s important to know that this is not a novel issue. Chicago is not being asked to be the first city in the United States with smoke-free parks,” Africk said.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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