Lighting up near a city swing set or seesaw could soon cost you $50. The Common Council is expected to vote Thursday night on a measure that would forbid smoking around outdoor recreational facilities, including playgrounds and ball fields.
And while the measure would not yet ban smoking throughout all of Albany’s outdoor parks — as some communities from Niskayuna to New York City have done, to some controversy — the ordinance’s sponsor acknowledged it is a step in that direction.
“We’ll get there. I really think that that’s the way we’re going to go,” said 9th Ward Councilman James Sano, who spent 34 years teaching physical education to city kids, mostly middle-schoolers. “People want to be healthier. I don’t think anybody says ‘Hey, I want to be less healthy.’”
Sano said the ordinance would not only help prevent children from being exposed to secondhand smoke; it also would give parents legal backup in asking smokers to stop puffing around playgrounds.
But opponents, notably last year when New York City squelched smoking in about 1,700 parks and along its beaches, argue such bans represent an overreach of government authority and trod on people’s freedom.
The legislation is being pushed by the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition, a nonprofit funded with state grants aimed at stopping people from smoking and preventing others, especially children, from starting.
“When kids aren’t seeing people smoking, the less likely they are to emulate it,” said Judy Rightmyer, the Colonie-based group’s program director. “Our recreation areas are places where people who should be going for healthy activities. And certainly smoking is not one of those.”
The coalition will pay for the signs advertising the ban, Rightmyer said.
Albany’s law would apply to “sport fields, swimming pools or playgrounds” but does not specify how far smokers must be from any of them. Schenectady passed a similar ordinance in 2010.
Other local communities with smoke-free playgrounds or parks, according to the coalition, include Cohoes, Watervliet, Bethlehem, Colonie, East Greenbush, Glenville, Niskayuna, Sand Lake, Voorheesville and Rotterdam.
A spring 2011 Siena College poll revealed that a majority of residents of Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties back expanding no-smoking laws to include playgrounds, public pools, beaches and building entry ways. But support for applying the ban outright to public parks had the smallest majority (55 percent) in Albany County.
That was up from 48 percent in 2009, but down from 58 percent in 2007. Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute, said the swings appear less dramatic when the poll’s 5 percent margin of error is considered, but he added that the overall trend has been “a gradual movement toward a little more restrictive view by the public.”
Sano said the goal is not to “ostracize smokers to the point where they’re like lepers” and believes middle ground can be found. He acknowledged that a parkwide ban would be hard to enforce at massive park events like the Tulip Festival or Alive at 5 summer concert series.
“Crawl, walk, run. Let’s get this through and I’m sure from here it will develop and progress into something else,” Sano said, comparing the advance of no-smoking laws to that of leash laws. “Whoever thought at first that dogs wouldn’t just run at large? What becomes acceptable changes all the time.”