Omaha needs a citywide tobacco-free parks policy to protect public health

The city’s renovated riverfront parks already prohibit smoking and vaping. Let’s follow through with our other parks.

August 17, 2023 3:00 am
Gene Leahy Mall at The RiverFront

Gene Leahy Mall at The RiverFront, looking east toward the performance pavilion a couple of days before grand opening. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Omaha’s downtown riverfront parks, set to reopen this weekend, offer acres of beautiful green space for people to play, be active and find community.

As a member of the Metro Omaha Tobacco Action Coalition (MOTAC), I’m encouraged by the policy prohibiting smoking and vaping at The RiverFront, including Gene Leahy Mall, Heartland of America Park and Lewis and Clark Landing. Keeping second-hand smoke and tobacco litter out of parks is crucial to protect the health and well-being of the people and animals who enjoy these spaces.

It’s now time for the City of Omaha to implement a tobacco-free parks policy for the more than 250 parks in our city.

Parks are designed to be healthy places where all people can enjoy the environment and amenities. They are places that serve as sanctuaries for families, pets and wildlife. Smoking doesn’t align with these ideals: Tobacco is still the number one leading cause of preventable death in the United States, and research has shown that second-hand smoke is harmful — even in outdoor settings.

We know tobacco-free park policies help reduce tobacco usage and change community perceptions by denormalizing smoking and vaping behavior. Studies have demonstrated that smoke-free policies in parks have been associated with an increased perception among young adults that it was difficult to smoke, which may ultimately lead to lower usage of tobacco products.

In 2016, the National Recreation and Park Association adopted a policy encouraging the establishment and maintenance of tobacco-free facilities because of the health and environmental benefits, as well as the vital role parks and recreation spaces play in communities.

Across the country, thousands of cities and organizations have implemented smoke-free park and recreational facility policies. Here in Nebraska, Lincoln, Grand Island, Columbus and Scottsbluff, among other cities, all have adopted smoke-free park policies.

It’s time for Omaha to follow suit.

The City of Omaha’s Parks, Recreation and Public Property Department does an admirable job of encouraging and creating opportunities for healthy, positive lifestyles. The department works hard to maintain high-quality facilities with opportunities for everyone. The next step toward ensuring parks are healthy, welcoming spaces for all is to make them smoke-free.

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Athena Ramos
Athena Ramos

Athena Ramos is an associate professor of public health at University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health. She is also a Metro Omaha Tobacco Action Coalition (MOTAC) member.