Mercer Island City Council approved the posting of new park signs Monday night at most of the Island's parks which encourage visitors to avoid using tobacco products.
Director Bruce Fletcher told the council at a March 19 meeting in that while second hand tobacco smoke can increase risks of developing respiratory health problems, Mercer Island park rules do not prohibit the use of tobacco.
Fletcher asked the City Council for the power to adopt new rules prohibiting use of tobacco in areas where children usually gather, such as playgrounds, sport fields, bleachers, restrooms, concession stands, skate parks, swim beaches, and community events. Under questioning, he admitted that no one had complained about tobacco use in parks, but pointed out that volunteers collected 157 cigarette butts during a Dec. 19 clean-up of , mostly near the skate park, playground and gazebo areas.
"I thought we’d try something around where the kids are to start and see how that goes, said Fletcher. "Local parks are a gathering place for families to enjoy the nature, clean air and to have fun."
The Council preferred an incremental approach instead, led by a proposal from Deputy Mayor Dan Grausz which directed Fletcher to install signs that have facilities or areas dedicated to children. City Attorney Katie Knight clarified that a park rule change would "criminalize" the tobacco ban as a misdemeanor, much as visiting a park after closing times. So Grausz offered the sign alternative instead, with the signs declaring that "This Park is Tobacco Free", but have no legal enforcement.
The signs will be posted at nearly every public park, but likely not or most of the designated lands as those park lands have little or nothing in the way of "facilities or areas dedicated to children."
Last year, several cities in King County adopted the county’s plan and declared their parks tobacco free, including Auburn, Black Diamond, Covington, Seattle, Snoqualmie and the Vashon Parks District. Tobacco policies are enforced mostly by residents themselves, much like with dog leash and alcohol policies, according to the county’s health services website. This is how similar laws have worked in other places, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
"Most people will see the sign and comply with it," Grausz. "Those people who don’t comply with it will have to deal with the community pressure."
Two councilmembers, Mike Cero and Mike Grady, opposed the sign installation for the opposite reasons. Councilman Grady sought an outright ban on all tobacco use in parks due to the second-hand smoke risk and litter from cigarette butts and tried to remind the council that it was a public safety issue — their most important responsibility.
"It’s been very clear that smoking has been a significant health concern," Grady said. "I feel like we’re kind of cowering away from that. I strongly urge you to consider this in terms of a public health issue and a leadership issue."
Cero protested the signs as pointless with no enforcement and said second-hand smoke could be controlled by enforcing existing laws for dealing with underage tobacco possession and littering.
"I really have an issue with the city posting signs on something that tells people they can't do something yet they don't stand behind it," he said. "This is just something to do that's not addressing the problem."
According to Public Health Seattle - King County, tobacco causes nearly 2,000 premature deaths and costs over $340 million in medical expenses each year in King County. The "Tobacco-Free" park signs will be posted at all parks with areas or facilities for children. The signs are paid for by a $25.5 million grant from Public Health Seattle - King County in 2010. Mercer Island is eligible for approximately $4,000 in signs but must install the signs at the city's expense.