Outdoor Smoke-Free Policy Development

March 1, 2016, Department, by Megan Owens

Although communities and agencies of all sizes are confronting the issue of smoking and tobacco use in park venues, a standard policy or practice does not yet exist.Smoke-free park areas are quickly becoming an expected feature for many agencies. Each year, park and recreation agencies establish policies restricting smoking and other tobacco use in outdoor venues in order to combat a variety of health issues such as asthma, heart disease or lung cancer, as well as to address agency concerns related to tobacco litter. According to a recent survey in Illinois, agencies were more likely to establish smoke-free zones within their parks rather than designating an entire park property as smoke-free. This article explores the survey results regarding smoke-free policies among Illinois parks and recreation agencies and provides insight into the variability of policy development, coverage and enforcement.

Study Background

In response to an increase in inquiries about smoke-free parks, the Office of Recreation and Park Resources (ORPR) within the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, conducted a survey of park properties for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources that included close-ended questions about outdoor smoke-free park policy status, development and implementation. In 2014, this survey was mailed to all 524 identified agencies statewide and yielded a 65 percent response rate for these questions. Respondents included 208 park districts, 119 municipalities and 16 forest preserves. Illinois’ public park system includes both special taxing districts (i.e., park districts and forest preserves) and parks and recreation departments within municipal government structures such as villages, cities or townships. 

Policy Prevalence

Only 42 percent of agencies had a formal outdoor smoke-free policy for their park system. Further analysis of this finding revealed park districts were equally split on this issue, whereas most municipal and forest preserve agencies had not established a policy. The number is slowly increasing, as more agencies have enacted a policy since this survey was conducted. Nonetheless, agencies were less likely to have a policy that covered entire parks, as indicated in the below figure. Only 21 percent of agencies enacted a smoke-free policy for whole parks.

Agencies were more likely to designate specific park areas as smoke-free but the coverage areas varied across the respondents. The results indicated three types of park areas were commonly covered in the policy: playgrounds, pools and youth athletic fields. Youth and families frequently use these venues, which suggests overall support for limiting smoking and tobacco use around youth to protect their health and wellness. Results also indicated that smoke-free park policies were less likely to cover areas used by adults. These findings are similar to a study in Minnesota that found 80 percent of smoke-free park areas were used by children. 

The policy coverage areas identified in this study may also indicate the difficulty in building consensus around the still controversial topic of outdoor smoking policies. Park patrons may agree to abstain from smoking around children but some individuals may be less inclined to resist the urge to use tobacco products when children are not present. In these circumstances, collecting research data, learning from other organizations and understanding the needs of your community are crucial to develop an inclusive and sustainable policy.

Board Involvement and Approach

The process for developing any policy can be time intensive because of the necessary work of gathering information and input from multiple sources. The agencies that responded to this survey indicated their boards used several sources of information to develop a smoke-free park policy. Some boards utilized information such as health or park management trends that pertained to smoke-free policies. The habit of smoking has slowly waned over time, but new trends like vaping have become popular. Health-related information is limited at this time for these newer smoking modalities. Therefore, the use of trend data may suggest some agencies decided to take action when other entities (i.e. municipalities or universities) enacted stronger smoke-free ordinances or policies for their outdoor spaces. Community input was another highly influential source of information used by some boards during the decision-making process. In some cases, the boards indicated that previous smoking-related incidents in their parks contributed to their policy decisions. Interestingly, very few agencies utilized research data (7.8 percent) as a source of information, which may suggest an overall acknowledgment of the health risks associated with tobacco use. Agencies interested in establishing policies may consider collaborating with local organizations such as health departments, municipalities, school districts or nonprofit clubs that utilize parks. A collaborative approach may increase buy-in among community members and ensure all information and issues are considered during the planning and writing phases. Each agency has distinct properties and constituents; thus, more than one informational source is necessary for establishing an effective policy.

Policy Enforcement

The final component of examining outdoor smoke-free park policies in Illinois was to gain a better understanding of policy enforcement. This study found “no smoking” signage was the most common enforcement strategy. The use of signs is directly related to another form of enforcement — citizen enforcement (the reliance on park patrons to police themselves). While citizen enforcement was specifically identified by only a few agencies, some others use signs to subtly encourage patrons to self-report incidents to the agency or encourage patrons to approach and address the issue with those individuals violating the policy. Some agencies enforce their policy by having their staff monitor designated smoke-free areas. A study in Ontario, Canada, found most agencies did not need to hire additional staff or allocate more resources to implement their smoke-free park policies. The agencies incorporated staff monitoring into work responsibilities and collaborated with local authorities to enhance regular monitoring of all parks within the various agency systems. Staff monitoring may be easier to accomplish when parks are attached to facilities with a consistent staff presence compared to remote parks or trails with less-frequent monitoring. Remote park venues can pose a considerable challenge to enforce smoke-free policies, as patrons violating the established policies are less likely to be caught in the act. Catching patrons in the act of smoking can be challenging regardless of the park setting since smoking a cigarette can take less than 10 minutes.

Future Outdoor Smoke-Free Policy Considerations

The issue of smoking or using tobacco-related products in community parks is not likely to diminish. In fact, the increased usage of e-cigs or vapor cigarettes and the rise of legal marijuana usage suggest parks and recreation agencies will increasingly face this issue. The El Paso, Texas, City Council recently updated its outdoor smoking ban to address e-cigarette usage. In this situation, the El Paso Clean Air Coalition collected more than 1,000 endorsements from concerned citizens and organizations and presented this information to the city council. In January 2015, “vaping” was banned in all city parks. 

The process of developing a policy appropriate for your agency involves several steps. Any initial policy development should begin with the agency’s mission. A key question to ask is, “How will the creation of a smoke-free park policy help us achieve our agency mission?” Agencies should then gather information related to current local ordinances and state laws, experiences from other agencies with formal smoke-free park policies and health-related research. This information serves two purposes: (1) informing the agency’s policy development and (2) providing supportive evidence if the policy is challenged. The second important consideration for policy development is the implementation and enforcement strategy. Four guidelines should be followed during policy development: 

     1.  Staff involvement with monitoring and conflict resolution

     2.  The role of law enforcement

     3.  Understanding the design and intended use of the parks 

     4.  Understanding the different groups of people utilizing the park space 

A stronger, more effective policy will be designed when adequate time is devoted to this planning process.

Although communities and agencies of all sizes are confronting the issue of smoking and tobacco use in park venues, a standard policy or practice does not yet exist. Agencies and boards are encouraged to take time to collect information, gather community input and support, and consider enforcement in order to create an effective policy.

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Megan Owens is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and provides research and consultation services to park and recreation agencies through the Office of Recreation and Park Resources.