When Centennial Park has its formal reopening next year, it will be a poster child for Helena in the city’s efforts to discourage tobacco use.
The nearly 60-acre park, built on the site of a reclaimed landfill, is called a centerpiece attraction for outdoor recreation in town, and on Monday night the City Commission agreed to make the park a “tobacco free environment.”
No, there won’t be police patrolling the grounds to look for violators. And there won’t be fines for those who flout the rule and choose to light up or dip into a can of snuff for a pinch between the cheek and gum. But city officials are hoping that this kind of behavior will draw second looks to make users feel self conscious about this behavior.
The commission’s resolution that bans tobacco use in the park says that the city will make an effort to create community awareness and provide education on the no-tobacco policy. Signs and posting, the resolution notes, are among what park users can expect to encounter.
“It’s more of a social norming, communicating the expectation that tobacco doesn’t belong in parks,” said Amy Teegarden, the city’s parks and recreation director.
“If someone is smoking, that sign gives people the empowerment to point to it” and reinforce the message, she said.
Teegarden gave a presentation to commissioners on Monday night as she explained why tobacco shouldn’t be used in the park. Examples of signs that she showed commissioners and the handful of audience members who were still at the meeting — few remained as this agenda item came after one on a nondiscrimination ordinance that overflowed the commission meeting room — included those that read, “Young Lungs at Play” and “Enjoy your tobacco free park.”
Future improvements for the park will make it more attractive to families and children as an enclosed dog park is planned — the 2.3-acre facility costing about $80,000 should open this summer — which should reduce the number of loose dogs that is a concern for those who use the park as well as the dogs’ feces that can litter the area.
Plans also include other improvements such as a bike park and a playground area accessible to those with disabilities.
Depending on how the tobacco-free policy is received by the community, it could be reevaluated in a year of so to see if it could be expanded to other parks, Teegarden said.
The policy is an attempt to promote healthy choices and create a connection that parks can be a healthy place to recreate, she added.
Teegarden wasn’t alone in the bid to keep tobacco out of Centennial Park.
Melanie Reynolds, the health officer with the Lewis and Clark City-County Health Department, said the county’s Board of Health endorsed the idea too.
“We came at it from there’s no safe level of secondhand smoke,” she said on Tuesday.
According to the 2011 Community Health Report, assembled by the Lewis and Clark City-County Health Department, 544 of the 8,704 people who died statewide in 2009 were from the county. Topping the causes of death was cancer, with heart disease as the runner-up.
“It’s important to me and to the Health Department because tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death in the U.S.,” Reynolds said.
“Both are related to tobacco,” she added.
And the report also shows that nearly 19 percent of local high school students have smoked one or more cigarettes in a 30 day period while 9.6 percent of middle school students had lit up. The percentage that reported smoking exceeded the statewide average, according to the 2011 report.
For chewing tobacco, 5.8 percent of local middle school students said they had used it in a 30-day period while 14.1 percent of high school students admitted to using it. Both groups exceeded the statewide figures.
The health department parking lot sports signs alerting patrons that tobacco is not to be used on the premises, a policy that went into place in October 2007.
“Studies show there is no safe level for secondhand smoke,” Reynolds said. “This is such a great opportunity, this is a centerpiece park.”
Drenda Niemann, director of Youth Connections here in Helena, was among those who spoke during the commission hearing. The organization’s website says its focus is on community members working together to make Helena a healthy and supportive place for kids and families. She, as did others, endorsed passage of the resolution.
Speaking to the commission was a way, she said, to advocate for the health of children here by protecting them from secondhand smoke and to offer role models through those who use the park and don’t use tobacco products.
Youth Connections joined Teegarden to show the commission that it’s not just local government that wants to see tobacco kept from the park, Niemann said.
Advocating for a tobacco-free environment was also driven by sanitation issues and concern for fire prevention, she added.
Commissioners were given a letter in support of keeping tobacco out of Centennial Park from the YMCA that was signed by David Smith, the CEO, and Susan Langerquist, the board’s president.
The letter notes that the YMCA board adopted a tobacco-free policy in March of this year and that the organization does not accept compensation from any tobacco industry sponsored program, promotion or advertisement.
“As an organization whose goal is to provide a safe and healthy recreational environment for all, we recognize that there are numerous health hazards resulting from the use of tobacco products, including smoking, the breathing of secondhand smoke, and the use of smokeless tobacco,” the letter stated. “We understand our responsibility to the participants of our programs to model and promote healthy, tobacco-free lifestyles.”
Another letter on YMCA letterhead, signed by nine children, also lobbied for banning tobacco from the park.
“Cigarettes are everywhere. Helena’s parks are littered with butts and stubs. Adults can be seen smoking on nearly every street corner. Why can’t we have just one smoke-free park? We want to be able to play freely in the park without the risk of being affected by second-hand smoke,” their letter concluded.
The message resonated with Commissioner Dan Ellison.
Discussing his support for the resolution on Tuesday, he said the children’s letter caught his attention.
While he said it’s a personal decision if people want to smoke, that the park is being reopened after three years of work offered an opportunity to prohibit tobacco there. Steering young people away from tobacco use was another point for him in the resolution’s favor.
The commission’s action now allows the city to proceed with installing signs. Those who are taking advantage of the park will know of the tobacco-free policy so there won’t be tobacco use now and then banned at a later date after people have become accustomed to smoking or chewing while at the park, Ellison added.