Grand Forks Park Board still uncertain on tobacco ban

By Charly Haley, Grand Forks Herald

After about 15 people stood up simultaneously during a Grand Forks Park Board meeting Tuesday and told the board they support tobacco-free parks, most board members remained uncertain about banning tobacco use.

“A general issue is, does the Park Board want to keep in fidelity with its mission to promote a healthy lifestyle?” said Jim Whitehead, a representative of the Coalition for a Healthy Greater Grand Forks, to the board.

A ban on all tobacco use, both smoking and chewing, has been discussed by the Park Board for about two years. The idea is championed by Park Board member Molly Soeby, but other board members haven’t stated clear opinions on the issue.

In a back-and-forth between audience members speaking in favor of a tobacco ban, most Park Board members said the answer isn’t simple.

“I don’t think any of us are here to say we want smoking for our kids,” board member Tim Skarperud said. But, “We already have a pretty substantial law in place, and are we here to set laws?”

Board President Jay Panzer agreed.

“Who are we to make additional laws above and beyond what the city has already done?” Panzer said.

Grand Forks city code prohibits smoking at the Park District’s softball fields and golf courses, but that does not include chewing tobacco, and the law does not encompass playgrounds or dog parks, Soeby said.

She offered health statistics in favor of a full tobacco ban, including that more children than adults chew tobacco in North Dakota, at 13.8 percent of children versus 7.6 percent of adults.

Other board members said they agree there are health problems associated with tobacco use, but they still aren’t sure about the effectiveness of a tobacco ban, especially because it would be difficult to enforce.

Board member Paul Barta said he’s also undecided, but he’s leaning in favor of the Park Board “setting the trend” by banning all tobacco use in public parks.

While several audience members spoke in favor of the tobacco ban, none spoke against it.

“You have people here, in chairs, telling you how important this is for Grand Forks,” one audience member said. “Where are they?”

LaDouceur, Skarperud and Panzer said they’ve received several calls from people against the ban, and they want to consider those people, too, in making a decision.

“There are certain people that want to be out in the front like this,” Skarperud said, referring to the audience at the meeting, “and there are certain people we talk to behind the scenes.”

Park District Director Bill Palmiscno said he’s hopeful the Park Board will vote in favor of some sort of expanded tobacco ban, whether that’s banning all tobacco use in parks or extending the smoking ban to all parks.

“I don’t want us to not move forward because we can’t have a compromise,” Palmiscno said. “I would rather get part of this done than nothing done.”

Park Board members did not vote on a tobacco policy Tuesday.

Palmiscno said he’d have Park District staff draft two ordinances — one with a full tobacco ban, and another with an increased ban — to be reviewed at a future board meeting.