After a unanimous call by City Council to begin drafting new policy, Austin residents may soon be banned from smoking in public parks in addition to the 2005 ban placed on smoking in most indoor public places throughout Austin.
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said City Council’s support, and ultimately the call for a new ordinance, originated from the burn ban that is currently in place in city parks. The smoking prohibition, as written within the proposed resolution, addresses more of the danger smoking poses to igniting wildfires than the danger it poses as a health risk.
What has yet to be cleared up, however, is how strictly the public parks smoking ban will be enforced at high-turnout events such as the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
“Enforcing a smoking ban is extremely difficult,” Councilman Bill Spelman said. “I don’t know the right means of balancing enforcement costs versus the prohibition benefits. This should be considered in drafting the ordinance.”
Spelman also directed City Manager Marc Ott’s office to not mandate any exceptions for the ordinance, but to give Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley enforcement flexibility.
Ott’s office is currently developing the ordinance and will present it to the Parks and Recreation Board on Dec. 6.
The City Manager’s office will present the written ordinance to City Council on Dec. 8. An implementation date for the ordinance has not yet been disclosed.
According to the Austin Fire Department, nine out of 10 fires along roadways are caused by cigarettes. Recent area wildfires burned approximately 35,000 acres of land and destroyed 1,500 homes.
Despite the concentration on wildfire risks, the resolution does address a grant the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department received to address deaths and health risks associated with tobacco use. Also, according to the resolution, 37,717 cigarette butts have been collected from 38 Austin Parks and Recreation Department sites this year.
Hensley gave her full support for the ordinance, citing the environmental consequences cigarettes have on city parks and the city as a whole.
“Cigarette butts not only pollute and trash our parks and trails, they also leak harmful chemicals into our water system,” she said. “The harmful effects of smoking, as well as second-hand smoke exposure, is certainly not conducive for a healthy parks and recreation system.”
Hensley said the Parks and Recreation Department will work with park rangers and city staff to outline an enforcement method for the community to review.
Elizabeth Richard, City of Austin Health and Human Services program coordinator, said enforcement will rely on self-enforcement, as in other cities with smoke-free policies. The Austin Police Department will be able to enforce the ordinance, but the limitation of their resources requires Austin citizens to be on an honor system of sorts, when it comes to keeping parks smoke-free.
Richard said the city is still researching what possible citations and fines may be associated with violating the ordinance once it is implemented. She said the department is looking into ways the ordinance may be flexible in order to accommodate for park events.
“This is another big step forward,” Leffingwell said. “It is the biggest step that will be taken [on smoking prohibition], and we have to make sure we are on solid ground.”