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Legislature aims to make public areas smoke-free

Smokers could soon be discouraged from lighting up at Erie County's parks, playgrounds and beaches.

But whether that will mean a formal ban on smoking in the parks is still up in the air.

The County Legislature on Thursday formally asked Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein to prepare a plan within 30 days to enact new rules "to achieve a smoke-free environment throughout the Erie County Parks system."

Burstein met with representatives from Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and the Erie-Niagara Tobacco-Free Coalition next Thursday to discuss the issue, but ideas for how to implement a policy that would be enforceable are still under discussion.

"It's about informing people and educating them," said Gretchen Leffler, regional vice president of the American Cancer Society, "and hopefully giving our youth, who are there to get healthy and play and have fun, the understanding that smoking is not a safe, normal adult behavior and it doesn't go with recreation and physical activity."

The county is not likely to implement a new law that would prohibit smoking in parks but is exploring options for strongly encouraging people not to smoke and to make educational materials available in the parks, said Peter Anderson, a spokesman for Burstein.

"They are looking for the appropriate mechanism to make the parks smoke-free," Anderson said.

Legislators voted, 10-1, to encourage Burstein to develop the new rules, with Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant voting against the proposal.

Grant said she is concerned that a total ban on smoking in the parks and recreational sites would lead smokers to gather at the entrances. She noted that smoking is legal for adults and said she would prefer to see smoking restricted to certain areas within the parks.

"If you tell people they can't smoke somewhere, they're going to find somewhere else to smoke," said Grant, D-Buffalo.

The effort to reduce smoking in Erie County's parks follows similar proposals in communities in Erie and Niagara counties, as well new state rules implemented last month that limit the areas where people can smoke in state parks and historical sites.

The villages of Hamburg and Williamsville have passed laws banning smoking from parks, said Anthony G. Billoni, director of the Erie-Niagara Tobacco-Free Coalition.

Legislator Thomas J. Mazur, a Cheektowaga Democrat who proposed the resolution to make the county parks system smoke-free, said he believes a new policy would reduce the amount of cigarette butts thrown in parks and would cut down on secondhand smoke.

"If people want to smoke, let them smoke in their own homes," Mazur said.

The county in 2010 placed 400 garbage totes imprinted with the words "Please no smoking" at some parks and beaches, but stopped short of passing a smoking ban then.

In other business Thursday, the County Legislature threw its support behind efforts by Rep. Brian Higgins to persuade the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to transfer control of roughly 384 acres of waterfront land on the outer harbor to the Erie County Harbor Development Corp.

Legislators voted unanimously to send their resolution to the NFTA and other officials to show their support for the effort.