Tobacco ban in parks approved

COVINGTON -- Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a ban on use of all tobacco products in county parks, effective April 1.

Recreation Commission Director Tommy Hailey said the purpose of the ban is to discourage youths from using tobacco and teach them the disadvantages of using.

Attorneys with the state Department of Health have reviewed the ordinance and given their approval, Hailey said, meaning the county qualifies to apply for grants to fund signs and brochures to notify and educate the public on the ban.

The Recreation Commission is teaming up with The Newton County Community Partnership, which has been working since 2000 for a tobacco-free community, according to Director Laura Bertram.

The ordinance prohibits indoor and outdoor use of all types of tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco, at all times. The ordinance was modeled after that of the city of Duluth and other communities nationwide, said Jenny Carter with the County Attorney's Office.

The Recreation Commission is in charge of 16 facilities that would be impacted, along with four county-owned parks that are not under the Recreation Commission's jurisdiction: Lake Varner, Factory Shoals, Chimney Park, and the Square Park in downtown Covington. The Recreation Commission will also speak with municipal governments about imposing the tobacco ban in municipal parks, Hailey said.

During citizens' comments at the end of the meeting, which followed commissioners' vote, Julie Anderson, a member of CASAA, The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, said it doesn't make sense to include smokeless tobacco and smoke-free products in the ordinance. Electronic cigarettes have not been shown to be a danger as far as secondhand smoke, she said. Anderson said she smoked two packs a day for 35 years and, "If it weren't for these I'd still be smoking, so it's important to get people to quit, but taking away an alternative for them that's not harmful for bystanders is sometimes, I think, shortsighted."

Anderson and Barbara Malenfont drove all the way from Augusta to be at the meeting. Malenfont works at Victorious Vapors, an electronic cigarette and "vape" shop in Augusta. She said if not for electronic cigarettes she would not be alive today, as she was previously on oxygen "24/7." She said the bystander won't experience any more impact from an electronic than they would from inhaling the vapor from a pot of spaghetti cooking. The products used in electronic cigarettes are used in items like lip balm and at hospitals to freshen the air, she said.

Commissioners did not respond to the comments and did not alter the ordinance.

In addition to the Community Partnership, other partners on the tobacco-free campaign are Friends of Newton County Parks; Newton County Drug Free Coalition, Friends of Newton County Miracle League, Little League Baseball Inc., Dixie Boys Baseball Inc. and Newton County Health Department.

Once the ordinance is effective, violators will be asked to put away tobacco products, said Carter. If they refuse, they will be asked to leave the property. If they still refuse, the Sheriff's Office will be called and they will be charged with trespassing, she said.

Tobacco use contributes to the top four leading causes of death in Newton County -- cancer, heart disease, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke -- Hailey previously told commissioners.

With statistics showing that 27 percent of Newton residents smoke, "if my math is correct, 73 percent of people here that don't smoke have to tolerate second-hand smoke from those that do," he said.

Hailey cited a report by the 2012 Georgia Youth Tobacco Survey Summary indicating that 10 percent of Georgia high school students smoked their first cigarette before age 11; 48 percent of Georgia middle school and 54 percent of high school students who have asthma have been exposed to second-hand smoke; and 11 percent of Georgia middle school students and 23 percent of high school students use tobacco products.