Mecklenburg may ban smoking from government grounds, parks

For years, government buildings in Mecklenburg County have been smoke-free – inside.

Now, in a move championed by Mecklenburg Health Director Marcus Plescia, county commissioners will hear a recommendation Tuesday that would ban smoking on the outside of all government buildings and ban all tobacco use – including the kind that is chewed or dipped – in county parks, including greenways and county-owned golf courses.

The ban would also include electronic cigarettes.

Since commissioners are the county’s health board, approving the recommendation would mean that smoking would be banned from all government buildings in the county, including those in Charlotte and the other six municipalities.

In addition, smoking would be banned from spaces in private companies “where the public is invited inside,” Plescia said.

Commissioners are expected to schedule a public hearing Tuesday and could vote on the measure at its September meeting.

Plescia said smoking is Mecklenburg’s “greatest health issue.”

“It is also an issue we can do a great deal about using these ... policy interventions like the smoking bans on government grounds, including parks, and public places,” Plescia said. “Smoking is a terrible habit and one that is difficult to kick. It causes a significant amount of pain and suffering.”

He said that 20 N.C. counties have already instituted some form of smoking ban on government grounds. “It is gaining momentum across the state,” he said.

The health department has scheduled a public forum on the issue next Monday in room 267 at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.

In 2009, state legislators passed a law banning smoking statewide in bars and restaurants and in government buildings and vehicles. The law also gave counties the authority to enact more rigid smoking restrictions.

The smoke-free recommendation comes endorsed by the board’s Health and Human Services Committee, and the county’s Park & Recreation Commission, County Manager Dena Diorio said.

“I certainly support our health director, who is trying to improve the health of the people of Mecklenburg County,” Diorio said.

Parks director Jim Garges has been a strong advocate for banning tobacco use at parks. Before uptown’s Romare Bearden Park opened last August, commissioners made that park smoke-free at Garges’ urging.

Two years ago, he said, his department surveyed 500 residents about tobacco-free parks: 72 percent were for it.

“I’m a firm believer that parks ought to be places that promote health,” Garges said. “If kids don’t see you smoking and don’t think it’s cool, they are a lot less likely to start.”

Board Chair Trevor Fuller said he supports the new ban, though perhaps not as sweeping as proposed.

“It’s an effort that Dr. Plescia has taken since he came in the door,” Fuller said. “We need to eliminate the health threat that smoking causes where we can. To the extent that we can encourage healthy behavior, when it comes to our properties I think we ought to take the advice of our doctor on this.”

Commissioner Pat Cotham, a member of the human services committee, voted to send the recommendation to the full commission. Now she said she’s struggling “with a blanket ban,” particularly at parks.

One “busy” weekend, she visited 10 parks and a golf course and talked to about 90 people about smoking in parks.

She didn’t see a lot of smokers.

“I went to parks all over the county and I only saw one smoker,” Cotham said. “I talked to young golfers, and they said it’s the older golfers who like to smoke cigars on the golf course. They say their wives won’t let them smoke at home.

“I’m just not sure it’s that big a problem at parks.”