Reality Check

Olean High School senior Olivia Lang (left) speaks during a presentation by the school’s Reality Check group to the Common Council’s Strategic Planning Committee on Tuesday. Club members urged aldermen to enact a ban on tobacco use in city parks citing health damage and litter at the city’s 16 parks. 

OLEAN — The hundreds of cigarette butts, wrappers and e-cigarette waste in city parks would be a thing of the past if a school group had its way.

The Olean High School Reality Check club presented to the Common Council’s Strategic Planning Committee on Tuesday, hoping to put the kibosh on tobacco use in city parks.

“We’re not against smoking — we’re against the tobacco industry,” said Olean High School senior Olivia Lang, adding that she is worried about the large quantity of litter generated in parks by smoking, as well as the health effects. “There is no safe level of smoke to breathe in.”

Jonathan Chaffee, coordinator of the Reality Check program of Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany Counties, said his group helped Jamestown and the town of Carroll in Chautauqua County implement similar policies. With state funds used to run the program, he added the group would cover the cost of signs in Olean parks if an ordinance is enacted.

Alderman Paul Gonzalez, D-Ward 3, said he was in favor of banning tobacco use from the parks, but was concerned over how it would be enforced.

Chaffee said that just by posting it would deter some smokers, while nonsmokers in the park could tell smokers to stop. Another option, he said, is to implement a fine for violators, but noted that Jamestown has not issued any fines since its policy was enacted.

The city’s 16 parks currently do not allow smoking in the playground areas, said Alderman Linda Witte, D-Ward 1, who was mayor when the change was enacted.

“We got criticised for putting in the ‘Young Lungs at Play,’” Witte said, adding a major trigger to council action was young children were eating butts and occasionally needed emergency medical care, as the children “were literally overdosing on those things.”

The club went to Franchot Park and Lincoln Park in the spring to hunt down tobacco litter, Chaffee said, partially to see if smokers are violating the rule.

“In total, we had 2,000 flags to use, and we used around 700 of them,” he said, with many near the playground in Franchot Park. “We were only there for an hour at each park.”

“We’re also seeing a lot of e-cigarette cartridges,” Lang said. “Those never break down.”

Mayor Bill Aiello said he would support the move.

“I think all of our buildings and properties should be tobacco-free,” Aiello said.

Council President John Crawford, I-Ward 5, said that many businesses like Dresser-Rank have created tobacco-free campuses — something he is in favor of doing at the city level.

Along with the direct health and litter benefits, he noted “it’s about the insurance” — higher demands on the healthcare industry from smoking-related illness raise insurance premiums for employees and employers, as well as taxpayers, as half of all health care expenses are paid by government programs.

Chaffee said that making smoking more inconvenient has helped cut usage.

“Every little barrier, every little step … for some people, it becomes time” to quit, he said.

(Contact reporter-editor Bob Clark at Follow him on Twitter, @OTHBob)