Public spaces not so smokefree

Last updated 09:54 13/07/2014

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Cigarette fumes will still waft through "smokefree" playgrounds, parks and streets until the Government takes action, experts say.

Over half of all councils countrywide have introduced measures to create smokefree outdoor areas. Yet such rules are routinely flouted, leaving the question of what difference the unpoliced policies made.

Public health researcher George Thomson said in a seminar last week the law constrained councils to a "softly softly" voluntary approach. Council "bans" could encourage people not to light up, but could not make enforceable rules, with either a warning or a fine, the University of Otago Wellington associate professor said.

Palmerston North was one example - introducing a "voluntary ban" in its city centre last year. Whanganui's central shopping area was also set to become a self-policing smokefree zone.

"Councils are afraid of litigation. If the Local Government Act gave them specific powers to make smokefree outdoor areas, that would help," Thomson said.

"We're the only country that has taken this educational approach. Everywhere else has bylaws."

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia was unable to provide comment on whether the Government would pave the way for enforceable local authority smokefree bans, such as those used in Australia and the USA.

Thomson said in overseas bans, penalising those lighting up in banned areas happened less than one per cent of the time.

"Fines are very much a back-up, for people who are chronically unable to adjust their behaviour." Under its long-term plan, Auckland City Council might be the one of the first to test out a smokefree bylaw, he said.

Last year, a three-phase policy was voted through, declaring all council and outdoor spaces smokefree, including libraries, community halls, public transport areas, parks, swimming pools and stadiums.

The regulations were to ban smoking in squares and plazas next year and urban centres and public beaches by 2018 - moves that could need a bylaw. Auckland councillor Calum Penrose said the next steps were "not on the radar" and if introduced, would not carry enforcement policies.

Despite public appetite for fines, only one council had them in place - lighting up in a Whanganui park or reserve risked a maximum $20,000 fine. Wellington City Council withdrew its $500 penalty for smoking in Cable Car Lane in 2008.

Midland Park in Wellington's CBD went smokefree at the end of May, though the space remained popular with those on a smoke break.

Regional Public Health team leader Kristen Foley said under the law, Wellington smoking ban enforcement officers could not fine people breaking the outdoor rules, as they could for people smoking in workplaces, bars and restaurants.

"The whole point of smokefree playgrounds and parks is really around de-normalisation. It's around changing the culture." No smokers in Midland Park talked to by The Sunday Star-Times had heard Midland Park was smokefree, including Lower Hutt 23-year-old Allen Tamatea.

"I just smoke where everyone else smokes, to be honest." He said he tended to base his decisions on whether to smoke on how empty and child-free an area was, and may light up in a smokefree park if the space was empty.

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Fellow smoker Hamish Turney, 22, said the lack of signage was likely to blame for the number of smokers using Midland Park.

The messages on the signs, reading "Thank you for keeping this park smokefree", would be less heeded than something more direct, the finance worker said.

"It's almost encouraging you not to smoke, not telling you that you can't smoke."

Toya Galvin, 22, would be annoyed to get pinged by a fee. "Either make it illegal and ban it completely, or it's legal. "

Christchurch City Council was one of the first to introduce smokefree playgrounds and parks.

Regional parks team leader Kay Holder said a voluntary, "encouraging" approach was thought to be best.

- Sunday Star Times

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