Our Opinion: Smoke-free playgrounds pose dilemma

Smoking bans are moving outdoors, both nationally and locally.

The Jefferson City Parks and Recreation Commission voted Tuesday to designate park playgrounds as smoke-free zones. The ban is narrower than a more expansive proposal that also would have included park pavilions.

Action by the local commissioners reflects a nationwide trend to prohibit smoking at outdoor venues, including parks, public beaches and college campuses. The trend was explored in a cover story in Tuesday’s Health section.

In the Health section story, professionals debated, ironically, the health consequences of second-hand smoke in outdoor venues.

“The evidence of risk to people in open-air settings is flimsy,” said Ronald Bayer, a Columbia University professor.

Health consequences do not appear to be the overriding reason for the parks commissioners’ decision.

The commissioners vote was based on a panel recommendation, which determined parents considered smoking on playgrounds to be a nuisance.

As a nuisance, smoking on playgrounds may take a number of forms, including: Proximity to second-hand smoke; litter from cigarette butts; and the example being modeled for children.

As a concept, however, outdoor smoking bans also are outside our comfort zones.

Some parks commissioners and many respondents on our social media sites voiced ambivalence. Although they favor smoke-free playgrounds, they are reluctant to support added government restrictions on personal freedoms.

The crux of the dilemma is the public health rationale used to justify indoor smoking bans may not apply to outdoor bans.

And although non-smokers — indeed, many smokers — may disapprove of smoking, does disapproval justify government prohibition?

On issues of regulating conduct and behavior, clear answers often are elusive.

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