East Lansing’s City Council voted last night to specifically ban smoking in more public spaces in the City, but not without some—including Councilmember Susan Woods—raising questions about whether the City has become a “nanny city.”
The proposal to specifically ban smoking in public parks, plazas, and trails came to Council from the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee. Former East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett—who lost his bid for reelection and is now on that committee—moved at the committee’s December 7, 2016, meeting to recommend “prohibiting all tobacco products including tobacco and E-Cigarettes,” not only in East Lansing parks but in parking lots of those parks.
Parks Commissioner Gary Beaudoin seconded Triplett’s motion, with Commissioners Ella Buss, Merle Heidemann, and Michael Townley joining in for a unanimous vote in favor. The matter was then sent on to City Council, which has the power to change the law.
Had Council adopted the recommendation made by the Parks Commission, that would have meant that chewing tobacco in your own car at a park would have become illegal. But Council decided on a less-stringent measure, dealing only with smoking and not with chew tobacco or e-cigarettes, and limiting the ban to City parks, public plazas, playgrounds, tennis courts, community centers, outdoor athletic complexes (including the soccer and softball complexes), the aquatic center, trails, and parking lots only when they are being used for community events, as when Lot 1 downtown is used for the Folk Festival.
At Council’s meeting last night, East Lansing citizen Arthur Slabosky told Council, “I am against this proposal.” He said that the cultural “assault on smoking has been successful. Smokers are a shunned minority in retreat.” He suggested this was an ordinance in search of a problem—one he did not observe in local parks.
“Just because MSU has passed such a ban doesn’t mean we have to do it,” Slabosky told Council. “A nanny university doesn’t have to mandate a nanny city next door.” He also said that this ban would simply create more reasons for tensions to break out between police officers and community members, something he said we do not need when nationally and regionally we have seen minor points of conflict ultimately result in violence.
But Matt Phelan, another citizen of East Lansing and an employee of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, strongly disagreed with Slabosky. He said when he coaches children’s baseball at local parks, there are often adults smoking near children. He told Council a legal ban is necessary, adding, “Add some teeth to it and I think people will adhere to the law.”
Councilmember Susan Woods at first agreed with Slabosky, suggesting she felt sorry for “poor smokers.” She said she didn’t like smoking but objected to banning smoking in places like the Ann Street Plaza on ordinary (non-concert) days. She said that if this passed, a customer to El Azteco would have to find somewhere other than the Ann Street Plaza to have a cigarette. It was pointed out to her that smoking would still be legal on sidewalks.
“I personally believe this is just over-regulation,” Woods told her colleagues, adding, “I think that East Lansing is starting to get a reputation as a nanny city. We manage the landlords, we manage the students, we manage everybody, and I just think this is too much.”
Councilmember Erik Altmann, disagreed, saying he thought the ban was a good idea, adding, “This is how things change.”
Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier said she was in support of the proposed ban but said she had had discussion with some people that had made her reconsider the “targeted effects” of such a ban. She said she didn’t want to call it racist, but noted that on campus and in East Lansing, a “larger percentage of foreign students smoke.” She added, “I don’t want to add an extra burden onto foreign students.” But she said she believed “the costs of second-hand smoke are greater than that burden,” so she supported the ban.
But in response, Woods maintained that banning smoking in public plazas was “so much regulation.” She said, “I think we are vultures nitpicking at everything.”
Mayor Mark Meadows said he thought it was going too far too tell people they could not sit in their own cars and smoke a cigarette. He recommended that the ban apply to parking lots only when they were specifically closed to be used for community events, like for concerts.
Despite Woods’ objections, ultimately Council voted unanimously to specify in the City’s Ordinance 1394 that smoking is prohibited “in a public place or in an office work place,” “in any city owned, managed, operated, and/or leased facility,” “in any park, plaza, playground, tennis court, community center, outdoor athletic complex, linear park or trail owned or controlled by the city,” and any parking lot when being used for a community event.
City Manager George Lahanas said signs would be produced and erected to advise residents and visitors. Violation of the rule counts as “a public nuisance” for which an individual can be ticketed by a police officer.
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