LARGO — Very soon, whenever someone lights up a cigarette in a Largo picnic shelter, there will be a problem.
Largo is banning smoking on its playgrounds and in public outdoor structures such as shelters, gazebos, fitness areas and tennis courts.
There are two reasons for the move. First, this will put some teeth in the "No Smoking" signs that are already posted at Largo's playgrounds.
"There is no ordinance backing that up, unfortunately," said Largo parks superintendent Greg Brown. "We do kindly ask people to step outside, but we have nothing to back that up."
Second, the ban is intended to give police another tool to use in dealing with unruly teens at Largo Central Park. City officials contend that there's a constant issue with groups of youths congregating in the many picnic shelters there, causing vandalism, graffiti and harassment of other park users.
"If you've been to Central Park in the last five years, you may have noticed groups of teenagers hanging out in the park structures, causing issues for regular park patrons," Brown said.
Police requested the new law and city commissioners unanimously approved it Tuesday night. It won't actually go into effect until it's approved in a public hearing on March 18.
Smoking will still be allowed in Largo parks, officials said, but only outside picnic shelters and other structures.
That fact baffled Commissioner Jamie Robinson, who didn't think the law went far enough.
"If I can smoke here but not smoke there, what difference does it make?" he asked. "If the kids can stand all around the gazebo, it doesn't matter if they're in it or outside of it. It's the same group of kids in the same spot."
Why not just ban smoking in the whole park, he wondered.
Brown said that limiting the smoking ban to park structures would make the law logistically easier to enforce.
"It sort of takes the ability for people to congregate and smoke in a park structure away," he said.
"What are you going to do about e-cigarettes?" asked Commissioner Curtis Holmes.
The answer: nothing. There are no government regulations that cover e-cigarettes, officials said.
On another antitobacco front, commissioners voted for a resolution urging Largo businesses not to sell candy-flavored tobacco.
They did so at the request of Students Working Against Tobacco, or SWAT, a group of local students affiliated with the Pinellas County Health Department.
A couple of high school students appeared before the City Commission, asserting that the sweetly flavored tobacco is marketed to teens, even though people younger than 18 can't legally buy the stuff.
"We really want kids to stop being targeted by these companies," said SWAT member Daniel Pate, a Seminole High School student. "The hope is that the people selling these products will realize that it's probably not good to market these things to children to replace the smokers that have died from it beforehand."
Holmes, a former smoker, had never heard of flavored tobacco products.
"Tobacco, the taste is really too hard for starting out," Pate told him. "So they introduce flavors like strawberry, chocolate."
Mayor Pat Gerard called the products "ridiculous" and contended that they are marketed to teens.
"Notice where they put this stuff" in convenience stores, the mayor said. "They put it right there where it's very easy to shoplift. Honest to God, that's actually a marketing ploy that's used … they have a certain amount of loss built into their budget because that's a great way to hook kids on tobacco."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.