July 6th is my birthday. It’s also the day that the Gaithersburg City Council is scheduled to take a final vote on updates to our parks ordinance, which sets forth rules and procedures governing our city parks. The ordinance hasn’t been updated in several years, and as a matter of course, our staff reviews sections of our city code every few years and proposed updates to modernize our laws and keep them in line with new developments in technology or regulation and other best practices.
The update to the parks ordinance seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit what I consider to be a gaping void in our city laws: regulation of the use of cigarettes and other tobacco products. While virtually every other jurisdiction in the region has adopted laws to prohibit smoking in parks and playgrounds (including Frederick, Hagerstown, Bowie, Greenbelt, Rockville, Montgomery Village, Takoma Park, Montgomery County, and D.C.), Gaithersburg never has. That means that people are technically allowed to smoke at city parks, outdoor concerts, ball fields, the water park and miniature golf course, and even public playgrounds. City staff has politely asked attendees to limit their smoking in some of these facilities, but staff has no legal authority if someone refuses to comply. So, I proposed an amendment to ban smoking and other tobacco/nicotine product use in and adjacent to the city’s public playgrounds.
Interestingly, because Montgomery County’s ban on smoking in playgrounds was implemented using the County’s authority to regulate public health, the County’s ban applies to privately owned playgrounds within the City, such as those owned and maintained by Homeowners’ Associations. But the County law does not apply to the city’s public playgrounds. So we have an inconsistent standard in place within the city right now. I discovered this wrinkle when I personally watched two smokers puffing away and blowing their clouds of chemicals toward my two young children who were playing in a public city playground a few months ago. I did some research on the city’s smoking laws and was surprised to discover a complete absence of any regulation that would prevent smoking in or adjacent to a public playground.
Opponents of smoking bans in outdoor public spaces sometimes cite their own right as citizens to enjoy those amenities, suggesting that a smoking ban would restrict that right. But this argument ignores the rights of the many other citizens who want to be able to enjoy public amenities without the nuisance, pollution, and potential health hazards of cigarette smoke (not to mention fire risks and litter). It also ignores the fact that a smoker is still free to use and enjoy all of these parks and playgrounds, so long as they are not smoking at the time that they are using them. The flawed assumption in their argument is that they are always smoking — 24/7. Even heavy smokers should be able to go 20 minutes without a puff while sitting on a playground bench to watch their kids play. And I am certainly not proposing any restriction on smoking in your own home or car, or even other outdoor spaces at this time.
Even Ocean City, where Gaithersburg’s City Council just spent several days at the Maryland Municipal League convention, has now banned smoking on the entire boardwalk! Ocean City has also made 99% of its beaches smoke-free, designating very limited areas on the sand for smokers. If Ocean City, which is entrenched in the Eastern Shore and draws all sorts of revelers from around the state and region, can do it on its boardwalk and beaches, then surely Gaithersburg can do it in our public playgrounds.
Opponents also argue that a ban would be impossible to fully enforce. Of course we won’t be able to catch every single person who violates a ban, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the law. We have laws against speeding even though police don’t catch every single speeder. We have laws requiring people to pick up their dog’s waste, but we can’t catch every violator. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t still be a law. A citation for a municipal infraction is a reasonable deterrent; those who are caught won’t suffer an overly burdensome punishment but they probably will think twice before doing it again. And as folks become aware of a ban and hear about others who may have been issued citations, they may also think twice.
There are also too many unknowns about e-cigarette products, so just to be on the safe side, it makes sense to prohibit their use in playgrounds as well for now. Many nearby jurisdictions have already included e-cigarettes in their prohibitions against smoking in parks.
As a compromise to address the concerns of some of my City Council colleagues, I have proposed a limited ban only in city playgrounds and within a certain number of feet of those playgrounds. Ultimately I would prefer to see a broader ban in city parks and other outdoor facilities, but for now, I think a ban in playgrounds, where young children are playing, seems more than reasonable and in line with virtually all other jurisdictions in our area. Gaithersburg prides itself on being a progressive, safe city with a wonderful quality of life, a commitment to health, and outstanding recreational amenities. We have extensive regulations governing the equipment and designs used in city playgrounds to ensure our children’s safety and enjoyment. It’s time we had a smoking ban as well. I am hopeful that most, if not all, of the City Council will support this proposal.
For my birthday on July 6, I am asking my City Council colleagues for only one thing: Please vote to support my amendment, so I can make a wish, and blow out the cigarettes.
UPDATE: After the final vote was pushed back by a week, my proposal was adopted on July 13. The ban on smoking and e-cigarettes at city playgrounds took effect on August 3. Thanks to all who supported this!