Mecklenburg County commissioners debated the role of government Tuesday in banning smoking on county and municipal grounds and ending tobacco use in most parks.
Anti-smoking advocates wanted a broad ban applied to all parks. Some of the county’s towns, meanwhile, resent commissioners’ mandating a ban on municipal property. The compromise – only commissioner Bill James voted no – is likely to leave purists on both sides unhappy.
“We’re going to make everybody mad with this one,” said commissioner Karen Bentley.
The ban will not apply to six county-run golf courses and 18 regional parks, a nod to county residents and golfers who said they should be able to smoke in such large spaces. The county has about 200 parks in all.
The ordinance allows the county recreation director to lift the smoking ban exemption for special events such as festivals at three parks: Freedom, Reedy Creek and the Matthews Sportsplex.
The commissioners’ vote approved most of the broad ban Health Director Marcus Plescia has sought since he was hired in January. Parks Director Jim Garges has pushed a smoking ban in parks for years.
Plescia said the bans will reduce exposure to secondhand smoke, help smokers quit the habit and keep young people from starting. Tobacco causes 1 in 3 deaths from heart disease and cancer and, he said, kills 1,200 Mecklenburg County residents a year.
There is no better place to change those habits, the health director said, than in parks that are “symbols of health and well-being.”
County commissioners also serve as Mecklenburg’s board of health, giving them authority to enact policies countywide – including the towns that ring Charlotte.
But the mayors of some towns accused the county of overstepping its bounds in extending the smoking ban to municipal property. Matthews’ town board, for example, unanimously opposes the county rules.
“Who in the town of Matthews is going to enforce an ordinance they don’t support?” asked James, who represents southern Mecklenburg. Such decisions should be left to the towns, he said.
Commissioner Pat Cotham acknowledged twinges of conscience about “respect issues” with the towns. “There’s a lot of parts of this that I don’t like,” she said.
Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, a former smoker, said he prefers individual choice over government mandate but was satisfied with the compromise. “The opportunity is not for government to lead the charge but for families and individuals to make a choice,” he said.