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Smoking ban in parks proposed

Hub councilors’ plan echoes trend across country

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / February 9, 2011

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Two Boston city councilors are proposing to ban smoking in public parks and beaches, carrying the decadeslong campaign to reduce tobacco use to some of the last remaining public spaces where lighting up is still allowed.

Hundreds of communities nationwide, including Braintree, have already adopted similar prohibitions.

Councilors Felix G. Arroyo and Salvatore LaMattina, both asthma sufferers who are especially sensitive to secondhand smoke, took the first step toward a ban yesterday by filing an order for a public hearing on their measure, which would still allow smokers to puff on sidewalks.

The issue is scheduled to be presented to the City Council today, although action is weeks or months away.

“We want these public places to be smoke-free so that everyone can enjoy our parks, can enjoy our beaches, can enjoy our public spaces without injury to their health,’’ said Arroyo, serving his first term as councilor at large. “We don’t want to expose our young children at the tot lot. We don’t want to expose families at the beach to smoke.’’

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a strong supporter of smoking bans in bars and restaurants and of the elimination of cigarette sales in pharmacies, has not taken a public position on the councilors’ proposal.

In an interview, the mayor’s top health aide, Barbara Ferrer, was noncommittal about the possible restriction but said she and the mayor are “excited to hear more.’’

The mayor’s position will prove crucial: If he were to oppose the ban, it would take nine of the 13 councilors to override his veto. Menino’s position, whatever it turns out to be, is likely to influence broader debate about the wisdom of further limits on public smoking.

The measure appears to have at least two other supporters on the council, with Councilors Matt O’Malley and Michael P. Ross saying in interviews that they were likely to back the proposal.

Last week, New York became the latest big city to eliminate smoking in parks, beaches, and even Times Square. About 500 cities — Los Angeles and San Francisco among them — bar smoking in parks, declaring it a public nuisance and health threat akin to the consumption of alcohol.

Roughly a dozen Massachusetts cities and towns prohibit smoking in parks, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, an educational group.

Battles in other cities over smoking bans in parks exposed a central tension in public health: When does the quest to protect the public’s well-being start to infringe the rights of individuals?

Dr. Michael Siegel, a tobacco control specialist at Boston University School of Public Health, ardently supported initiatives in Boston and statewide to prohibit smoking in all workplaces, including bars and restaurants. Workers and patrons at a cafe or tavern, he said, cannot escape the swirls of smoke and the well-documented health perils.

“But I would argue in a wide-open space like a park or a beach, there is no necessity for the government to step in and regulate smoking, because nonsmokers can easily avoid exposure,’’ Siegel said. “My fear is if we are going too far and pushing for laws that are no longer justified on public health grounds, the public may begin to view us as zealots who are simply trying to get rid of smoking everywhere.’’

But Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, an associate professor of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, pointed out that two recent reports from the US surgeon general concluded that any amount of secondhand tobacco exposure poses a health risk. Research has shown that even outdoors, a plume of smoke can contain significant concentrations of toxins, he said.

“Nonsmokers shouldn’t have to depend on favorable winds to breathe clean air in our parks and our beaches,’’ said Winickoff, who added that a ban on smoking in parks would help curtail the proliferation of cigarette butts that litter the ground, posing a danger to pets and children who might ingest them.

Arroyo and LaMattina said they first broached the possibility of a ban last year, but did not aggressively pursue it.

Then, New York acted, with the City Council there giving lopsided approval to smoking prohibition in parks and beaches.

Their move yesterday was a bit of a surprise in a city where smoking regulation generally comes from the Boston Public Health Commission.

Ferrer, executive director of the commission, said that the councilors have had informal discussions with her staff but that she was not aware there was going to be a hearing, which has not been scheduled yet, until a reporter called yesterday.

The councilors’ proposal is more of a rough outline than a detailed depiction of precisely where smoking would be banned and where it would not be.

“There needs to be conversations and discourse about what makes sense for Boston,’’ Ferrer said. “The mayor’s interested in learning about this and learning what their proposal would be.’’

O’Malley, who represents Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, said yesterday that he had not had time to fully digest the proposal but said that he would probably support it. At first glance, he said, it seems like a logical extension on the city’s ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.

Ross — whose district includes the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and the Fenway — said he, too, was likely to support the measure.

Council President Stephen J. Murphy said he remained “open-minded’’ about the possibility of banning smoking from parks and beaches. “I’d like to hear both sides of it,’’ Murphy said. “But I do get a little bit nervous about how far does government go.’’

LaMattina — who represents Charlestown, the North End, East Boston, and a corner of Beacon Hill — said he was moved to propose a ban when he was in a small downtown park and watched a woman decamp from a bench when a smoker appeared.

“If people want to smoke, it’s their business,’’ he said. “But when you’re in the park or the public space, I think people should smoke away from the public.’’

Akilah Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.