On the surface, the choice appears to be a simple one: Should Charlotte-Mecklenburg parks go smoke-free?
The county’s Parks and Recreation Department has included the question in an ongoing telephone survey of Mecklenburg residents.
Parks Director Jim Garges said he expects the 500 responses to give him the backing he needs to take a smoking ban to the county manager. From there, he hopes it will go to county commissioners for a vote later this year.
If the county adopts the ban, it would join a growing list of North Carolina local governments to restrict smoking in parks and other public areas. Several other cities and counties are in the midst of their own debates.
Here, the catalysts behind the potential move appear to be the opening this summer of uptown’s Romare Bearden Park and 15 yards of controversial smoking space on the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.
And it’s the latter, beneath a small bridge leading to the entrance of Carolinas Medical Center off of King’s Drive, where the human complications from any ban become clear.
Smoking is banned on the hospital’s campus, from CMC’s buildings and lawns to its parking decks and the cars that use them. The short stretch of greenway under Medical Center Drive is the nearest smoking point for hospital visitors and employees.
During the week, one or two may congregate there at a time. But on weekends, when visits to hospital patients increase, so does the number of tobacco users under the bridge. That creates a plume of second-hand smoke and occasional gridlock with the runners, walkers and bikers trying to get by.
Garges wants that to end.
“Our purpose is to promote health, healthy spaces and healthy parks,” he said. “It’s not the right kind of message for what the parks stand for.”
Many greenway users would agree.
“I’m for a ban,” said a runner, who was pushing a stroller that held his toddler son near King’s Drive last week. He passes beneath the bridge daily, and didn’t want his name published but said he is a doctor who works for CMC.
He described the greenway’s second-hand smoke as “annoying and frustrating” and said that when his wife and twins join him for a run, there’s barely enough room beneath the bridge for the two adults and two strollers to get through.
Near the bridge, Lucinda Gilland and Robert Clarkson offer an opposing view.
Gilland, of Clover, S.C., is the mother of a 4-year-old boy suffering from a rare brain tumor at Levine Children’s Hospital on the CMC campus. Clarkson, of Lincolnton, has been visiting the bridge for the past six weeks since his wife was admitted to CMC for acute pancreatitis.
Both say they come to the bridge to get some air, escape the worries of the hospital for a little while, and smoke a cigarette or two. And while both acknowledge that smoking on the greenway is not ideal, they say smokers need somewhere to go.
“You come here already upset and worried, and cigarettes are my best nerve pill,” said Clarkson, who’s 55 and takes three or four smoking breaks each day.
“To the non-smokers, it’s OK. Let’s ban it everywhere. But cigarettes are a drug, a bad drug. At least we aren’t killing folks to get our dope.”
The debate over smoking in parks has picked up statewide momentum.
Salisbury, Burlington, Scotland County (Laurinburg) and Reidsville already are debating some sort of ban. Even Winston-Salem, home to tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds, is considering the move for its recreation areas.
In November, Orange County, home to Chapel Hill and Hillsborough, passed a sweeping ban that applies to parks, sidewalks and privately owned places where the public is invited.
And earlier this year, the city of Charleston followed up a smoking ban by the Medical University of South Carolina and Roper Hospital by prohibiting the use of tobacco in a 10-block radius into the surrounding neighborhoods.
When the new policy went into effect in March, the hospital’s security team handed out nicotine-replacement coupons to ease cravings.
Why the bridge?
In Mecklenburg County, the parks department operates 210 parks and facilities covering more than 19,000 acres. The system draws more than 3 million visitors each year.
Romare Bearden Park, under construction in Third Ward north of Bank of America Stadium, will be the latest addition when it opens in August. Because the new park is seen as a performance venue, smoking there, Garges said, “would be like smoking at Verizon Amphitheater. It will be a kind of test case.”
The friction under the hospital bridge has grown since the hospital went smokeless in 2006 and the popularity of the neighboring greenway has grown.
Hospital spokesman Kevin McCarthy says it’s the hospital’s policy to tell visitors and employees they can’t smoke on CMC property and not offer any directions to where they can go to light up.
But on earlier visits to the bridge, hospital guards have been seen directing smokers to the bridge and ordering them to stay there after they light up.
If the greenway goes smokeless, users will have to walk or drive off hospital property entirely. CMC has adopted the greenway to help with maintenance and cleanup. But Garges calls it “odd and disappointing” that smokers visiting the hospital are allowed to gather on county property.
“We have a great relationship with the hospitals and we’re both in the health business here,” he said. “Why would you send people down to smoke on a greenway?”
Several greenway users have been sympathetic to the smokers’ plight, that they are often visiting sick loved ones and need some place to go to relax for a few minutes.
Not everyone is so accepting of the smoke and the crowds, and they let the smokers know.
“I love the greenway, but some of those folks are fanning their faces before they even get under here,” Clarkson said.
Gilland, with the gravely ill son, said she’ll try to adjust to any ban.
That means she’ll probably smoke after driving somewhere in her car.
Staff Researcher Maria David contributed.
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