The Charles County commissioners expressed support this week for a policy that would prohibit the use of tobacco at public parks.
Tom Roland, the chief of parks and grounds at the Department of Public Facilities, recommended a policy that would outlaw any type of tobacco use within 100 yards of an organized activity at a county park. The county-owned White Plains Golf Course would be exempted.
Roland said three goals motivated the recommendation: to remove tobacco's negative influence on children, to eliminate secondhand smoke in the parks and to reduce cigarette butt litter.
"Adopting this policy would reinforce the county's commitment to provide recreation in a healthy, safe and wholesome atmosphere," he said. "It sends a message also, especially to our youth, that tobacco can be detrimental to your health, and it really has no place in sports programming."
Such a policy also would be another break with the tobacco traditions in Charles County, where a Queen Nicotina is crowned each year at the County Fair. Tobacco was a major crop grown by Charles farmers for most of the county's history and accounted for a significant portion of Southern Maryland's economic activity until the mid-20th century.
The recommendation to bar tobacco from the parks comes at a time when the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is pushing a "Tobacco-Free Sports Initiative," encouraging local jurisdictions to remove tobacco from playing fields. Nine counties in the state have either installed anti-tobacco signs at county parks or adopted restrictions on smoking, officials said.
But the Charles commissioners, who said they supported the idea in theory, raised several concerns about specific aspects of the policy.
Commissioner W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata) said enforcing a smoking prohibition could divert law enforcement resources from more important duties.
"I do think our sheriff's department has more important things to do than to go around and enforce an anti-smoking law," he said.
Roland said organizers of activities at the park could be responsible for enforcing the prohibition. "Through education, we're hoping, and peer pressure . . . the majority of park users will refrain from smoking."
Commissioner Wayne Cooper (D-White Plains) said the county should demarcate areas at or near the parks where people would be allowed to smoke.
"Parents are out there, and we're trying to say, 'Hey, you've got to change your lifestyle,' and I don't think that's government's job," he said.
According to the recommended policy, tobacco use would be permitted in parks when there wasn't any organized activity taking place, a distinction that concerned commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large).
"I think it's important that it's clear and simple and understandable," he said. "I would rather if we're going to do this, just simply say, 'No smoking at this park.'"
The commissioners plan to hold a public information meeting on the proposed tobacco policy before they put it to a vote.