Atlanta weighs smoking ban for parks, public areas

Workers on lunch break, parents of Little Leaguers and other visitors to Atlanta parks, be warned: You might have to leave the cigarettes at home.

Atlanta officials are moving forward with a plan to ban smoking in city parks, wading into an issue that has grabbed attention from the southside to the northern rim of the metro region. Across the country, smoking has gradually ceded ground and disappeared from movie theaters, public buildings, office complexes and many restaurants.

The proposed ban in Atlanta would follow similar moves by Alpharetta, Roswell, Duluth and Clayton County, among other local jurisdictions.

The rules would affect hundreds of thousands of people who come to Atlanta's parks from intown or the suburbs for concerts and shows during the city's packed festival season. Piedmont Park alone attracts 3 million visits per year, according to a March 2007 study.

City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who is co-sponsoring the legislation, said it took a while for the Parks Department to convince her that a ban is a good idea. But a couple of incidents — adults lighting up near children at a splash pad in her district, and widespread smoking during the Jazz Festival in Piedmont Park over Memorial Day — changed her mind.

"I'm a park person, and I've seen incident after incident where people were smoking all over the place and not being very respectful," she said. "I'm amazed that people will smoke around children and not think twice about it."

"Over the last year, I said, 'You know what? This is getting ridiculous,'" she said.

But smoking bans, or the threat of them, can create controversy. In DeKalb County, a proposed ban on smoking in public places — including parks, bars and strip clubs — was stubbed out last year after owners of nightclubs said the measure would hurt business. And the Gwinnett County city of Norcross just repealed a ban on use of tobacco products in public places after residents and business owners pushed back.

The ban had been on the books only a month.

"The issue changed completely from tobacco use to one of too much government involvement," said Councilman Ross Kaul, who sponsored the law in May but then pushed to repeal it.

In Roswell, City Councilwoman Betty Price said the city's ban is unfair to smokers and unnecessary in the city's wide-open park land. She said city staffers had no record of smoking-related complaints before the ban was enacted.

"I don't smoke or encourage anyone to," she said. "But 20 percent of the populace does smoke, and 20 percent also pays taxes and in public parks. They have as much right to be there as anyone else."

In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed supports the proposed ban. But city officials acknowledge there could be vigorous debate.

"I think, generally, there will be support" from the community, said George Dusenbury, commissioner of the city's Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. "People see parks as places where kids should run free."

Atlanta's proposed ban would apply to parks, athletic fields, aquatic areas, golf courses, tennis courses, hiking and walking trails, playgrounds, off-leash areas, and spectator and concession areas. It would prohibit anyone from burning or carrying cigarettes, cigars or pipe tobacco.

Alex Wan, whose City Council district includes Morningside and Virginia-Highland, said the goal is to increase green space and encourage active lifestyles. Smoking runs counter to that, especially in kid-centric areas like the skate park in the Historic Fourth Ward Park, he said.

Wan predicted that residents and park visitors would help enforce the measure with peer pressure.

"Once the signs go up, it becomes a self-policing thing," he said.

Several gray areas need to be filled in, including possible penalties for smoking. The Atlanta Police Department would be responsible for enforcement, but there would probably be a warm-up period in which warnings were issued instead of citations, Dusenbury said.

The City Council's community development and human resources committee is scheduled to consider the ordinance Tuesday. If the committee approves it, the ordinance would have to be approved by the full City Council and signed by Reed before becoming law.

No-smoking signs and warning periods have made enforcement smooth in several neighboring jurisdictions.

In Alpharetta, a ban covering all forms of tobacco in city parks took effect last year and covers 313 acres of parks and 250 acres of greenways. So far, no one has been hit with a $100 or $200 fine, said spokesman James Drinkard said.

Similarly, the tobacco ban in Roswell parks has not resulted in anyone being fined, said Morgan Rodgers, assistant director of recreation and parks. The approximately 980 acres of parkland in Roswell have been smoke-free for about a year, with possible fines up to $500.

"The hope is that we never have to do that," Rodgers said. "We're going to do everything we can not to make examples of people."

Staff writer Joel Anderson contributed to this article.