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Limit, don't ban, smoking County's anti-tobacco push in parks should reserve space for smokers

Smoking is a nasty addiction. It's also a legal addiction despite increasing efforts to legislate smoking out of existence by banning it in more and more public spaces. It's become trendy for both public and private establishments to have posted signs proclaiming themselves "smoke-free zones."

The reasoning goes that nonsmokers shouldn't have to be sickened by second-hand smoke, especially in public places where children and families gather. That's why the Erie County Legislature wants to create a "smoke-free environment" in the county's parks, playgrounds and beaches. Other municipalities, health facilities and sports stadiums have already enacted similar policies.

In some places, such as hospitals that are in the business of safeguarding human health, creating smoke-free zones may be a logical move.

But while some may find this sacrilegious, we don't think smokers at county parks and beaches should be denied the right to enjoy a publicly funded natural setting because they need to light up. Smokers are taxpaying residents, too. Most realize that they're in the grip of a cancer-causing addiction that might kill them someday and that really annoys other people.

If provided a designated smoking area in a public setting, most smokers will typically head to that location even though it's inconvenient, far from the action and probably located next to a dumpster. If these designated areas are chosen with care, they also won't interfere with nonsmokers' enjoyment of public spaces because the smoking area will be well marked and removed from areas where crowds are most likely to gather.

Banning smoking in public parks and beaches won't keep smokers away. Instead, it will increase the likelihood that smokers will surreptitiously light up anywhere they think they won't be caught or hassled. That would be quite a few places since we can't imagine serious enforcement of such a ban. Even worse, smokers could wind up congregating just outside park entrances or on the public sidewalks that ring these natural areas, forcing families to walk past a veritable nicotine haze to get to their "smoke-free zone." Expect cigarette butt litter to go up, too.

As county officials continue to explore this issue, we encourage them to adopt a more moderate position that discourages and limits smoking in outdoor recreation spaces without forbidding it altogether. Smoking is one of many vices that signs alone won't cure.