BANGOR, Maine — A longtime Bangor resident arguing for smokers’ rights gave city councilors something to put in their pipes and smoke Monday night.
As a result, a Bangor City Council government operations committee meeting to evaluate a possible ordinance restricting use of tobacco at all city parks generated a lot of discussion, but no final decision.
Bangor Parks and Recreation Director Tracy Willette presented a joint proposal on behalf of the council’s parks, recreation and harbor advisory committee and Bangor’s Public Health Advisory Committee to ban tobacco use at all public parks and outdoor facilities except Bangor Municipal Golf Course.
“At what point will some other perceived injustice like smoking be punished and diminish the freedoms of others?” asked Mary Lu Philbrook, 70, of Bangor. “The public has been taught to discriminate, shun, demoralize, humiliate and shame smokers. It seems no one has the courage to say enough is enough.”
The committee, which seemed poised to take a vote on recommending a ban on tobacco use at all parks, debated the issue before voting to give a thumbs-up to incorporating comments from Monday’s meeting into a less restrictive approach to regulating tobacco use.
“It’s one’s liberty versus another’s,” said Councilor Ben Sprague. “The question is where one person’s liberty ends and another’s begins.”
Councilor Geoff Gratwick, who is also a physician, said it comes down to prevention of health hazards.
“We don’t want to become a nanny state, but we do want to support public health,” he said.
Councilor Pat Blanchette said not at the expense of individual rights.
“I’m not ready to say no smoking at any place in any park in the city,” she said. “Smokers pay taxes, too. Actually, they pay more.
“We need to respect everybody’s rights. Back off and leave it alone.”
Councilor and Mayor Cary Weston was less strident in his take on things.
“Personally, I hate smoking, but I have a problem with the state taking money in taxes and it going back to the state level, and not local, while also demonizing it,” said Weston. “I don’t have a problem restricting smoking in vehicles with kids present, but I do have a problem supporting this.”
Councilor Nelson Durgin referenced scientific studies showing documented negative effects on others from secondhand smoke in open air areas. He also pointed out that the University of Maine system, Husson University and other colleges in Maine have either banned smoking on campus or are moving in that direction.
“While I agree it’s a hazard, I don’t think it’s something we should totally wipe out,” Weston said.
Shawn Yardley, Bangor’s Health and Community Services director and a former smoker, said 15 percent or more of children today have health issues related to smoking.
“I appreciate the different perspectives here, but there’s no way we can deny the science,” Yardley said.
After more than 30 minutes of discussion, the councilors directed Willette to go back to the joint committee and hash out alternative restrictions such as banning tobacco use within 50 feet of a children’s playground or entrance to a park and establishing more remote smoking areas.
Philbrook seemed encouraged after the meeting.
“People have choices. They don’t have to stand or sit near someone smoking. And cigarettes are still legal,” she said. “It’s a backdoor way to have a prohibition on cigarettes. I’m not saying it’s right. I just don’t think I should have to feel ashamed every time I light one up.”