Iowa City Council to vote on smoking ban for city parks

Smoking in College Green Park — photo by Zak Neumann

Update: The Iowa City Council approved the tobacco ban at its Oct. 17 meeting by a vote of six-to-one.

The Iowa City Council will vote on a proposed ordinance banning the use of tobacco products in city parks at its Tuesday night meeting. In addition to prohibiting smoking, the measure will also ban the use of smokeless tobacco. And because of an existing city regulation, if smoking in parks is banned, vaping in parks will also be automatically banned.

The vote will follow the proposed ordinance’s third and final reading. It was approved on both of its first two readings by votes of 6-to-1. Both times the sole no vote was Mayor Jim Throgmorton.

“I just don’t see this as a public health issue,” Throgmorton told Little Village. “It would be different if this was about secondhand smoke in a confined space, but it’s not. I don’t believe there is good science to support this.”

A 2013 study published in the journal Health Affairs supports Throgmorton belief. The study reviewed whether banning smoking on beaches and in public parks lessened dangers from secondhand smoke, reduced the environmental impact of cigarette butts and kept impressionable, young children from taking up smoking.

“I discovered the evidence was really weak,” Ronald Bayer, professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the lead author of the study, told the PBS Newshour in 2013. “The evidence of harm to non-smokers on the beach or in a park from someone smoking is virtually non-existent.”

Only one of the council members who supports the proposal has framed the issue as one of protecting the public from the health effects of secondhand smoke. Speaking during the first reading of the bill at the Sept. 19 meeting, Rockne Cole said he supported the bill because, “The evidence on second-hand smoke is just overwhelming in terms of the impacts on people. Now there is an issue about if it’s dispersed, but why even have any small amount of risk in our parks?”

The 2013 study found that smoking bans in public parks and beaches did produce some health benefits for smokers. Making it “more difficult for smokers to smoke,” the bans “contribute in an important way to the ‘denormalization’ of smoking,” which contributed to smokers reducing the amount they smoke or quitting.

That was the reason most of the city council members gave for supporting the ban.

“From my standpoint, it’s a statement by the city that we promote healthy citizens and a healthy city,” council member John Thomas said at the Sept. 19 meeting “Ultimately, I view it as a cultural issue. The culture needs to shift in that direction [of not smoking].”

Throgmorton pointed out that he isn’t in favor of smoking, but smoking has already been banned in many public places — including parking ramps and farmers’ markets — and some city parks since 2008. Smoking is prohibited in parts of the Ped Mall and in all of Black Hawk Mini Park. It’s also currently banned in areas of the other parks likely to appeal to children, such as athletic facilities, dog parks and within 50 feet of amusement rides in lower Iowa City Park.

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“We already have a pretty extensive list of places where smoking is banned, but we still have smokers,” Throgmorton said. “I don’t see how someone smoking a cigarette in the open in Hickory Hill Park affects me or violates someone else’s rights.”

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