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Smoking Bans in Parks: Public Health in Public Places

smoking in parks

A petition has been started on Change.org claiming that a proposed public park smoking ban targets the poor.

The City of Seattle is currently floating the idea of banning smoking in public parks.  This isn't an unprecedented move, but it is an important one in advancing public health and making our public spaces a little more clean and pleasant.  But unfortunately some over at Change.org believe that this is policing the poor and targeting the homeless.  But confusing anti-smoking and public health benefits as being anti-homeless is the same type of hypersensitive uproar that distracts us from larger and much more important issues such as actually resolving the challenges of those that are homeless.

It is no secret that smoking is bad for you and those around you.  We have known this for decades.  Smoking is a choice that negatively impacts the user as well as others around them.  Ending smoking is still a ways away, ensuring that smoking will remain a fixture in our society, but there is a time and place for everything, and smoking has no place in public spaces.  We ban smoking within proximity of building entrances, in most buildings, and even baseball stadiums.  There is no reason it should be allowed in a public park.

No one will dispute that our homeless are underserved.  It is a challenge for every major city, and many are in desperate need of solutions to housing, food, and addiction.  But banning smoking in a public park in no way negatively impacts the homeless.  Being homeless may not always be a choice, but smoking is always a choice.  Smoking in public spaces is poor behavior no matter how one attempts to justify it.  Advocating to protect the smoking rights of the homeless in public parks is not some noble act of social justice.  It is enabling the healthy behavior of a few to negatively impact the quality of life and livability of many.

When we say quality of life or livability we don't mean access to the neighborhood coffee shop or the concentration of record stores.  We mean the ability to use and engage in public spaces that are safe, clean, and free of unhealthy elements.  Banning smoking in parks doesn't ban the homeless.  It bans a behavior.  And whether the rate of tobacco usage amongst those that are homeless, or of anyone of any income bracket, is 25, 73, or 100 percent it shouldn't be allowed in a public space intended to promote good health.  While we have many laws that unfortunately target specific demographics this is not one of them.

It should be said again that this ban targets a behavior, not a class of people.  If the law were to propose proof of residency requirements to use the park the petition would have merit.  If there were income requirements to use a park bench then we should be raising hell.  If cities were installing spiked surfaces then we should be furious.  But banning a behavior, one that is indisputably bad for everyone, is not policing the poor.

This petition is little more than anger and frustration in the lack of resolving homelessness through a petty stance that benefits no one.  All cloaked under an argument that banning smoking in parks, which we do in so many other places, is somehow a means to put another pinch on those that are homeless.  A smoking ban will not result in a wholesale clearing of those that are homeless from our parks.

Public spaces, such as parks, undoubtedly belong to all of us.  And they should be used how the public sees fit.  But like many other laws that we use to protect our spaces in regards to public health and safety, smoking should not somehow be exempted under a false pretense that it is part of a larger conspiracy to crack down on homelessness.  Public health is paramount in our country.  And as long as we remain overly sensitive to smoking laws, continue pandering to automobile dependence, and weak on protecting our environment we will only make marginal strides of improvement.  Those that are homeless do not need their right to smoke in a park protected.  They need access to quality health care.  They need access to services that treat addiction.  And most importantly they need a place to rest their heads at night that is safe, dry, and warm.  Protecting smoking near a playground or public plaza does not resolve any of those necessities.  Necessities that are truly petition worthy.   

No matter someone's housing or income status, smoking in a place intended for public health and our youth should not be accepted.  A counter petition has been started in support of the public park smoking ban, one of which we encourage you to support and sign.  Like so many other cities, Seattle needs to support its public spaces as healthy and active environments for all, something that a smoke-free policy would greatly enhance.  Smoking is a choice, one that shouldn't be put upon others, especially those with a limited say.  And that is coming from a former smoker.

Photo Credit: Smoking Bans and Public Places/shutterstock