WATERLOO -- Bryan Vestal is raising a red flag about problems with smoking in city parks.
Make that hundreds of little red flags.
The 40-year-old resident has been flagging cigarette butts he finds in Lafayette Park to raise awareness for his campaign to ban smoking and tobacco products from his hometown's park system.
He's particularly concerned about the health effects of second-hand smoke, litter and setting the right example for children around playgrounds.
"I think more people will use the parks and it will make the community healthier," he added.
It took less than an hour Thursday for Vestal to plant most of the 300 flags he purchased around the playground at Lafayette Park, which was an idea he picked up from a group pushing for a similar park smoking ban in Cedar Rapids.
"What I get from people that are against tobacco-free parks is that the feel it's their freedom to smoke," Vestal said. "But what about our freedom to use the parks?
"Outdoor tobacco smoke can be as bad as indoor smoke," he added. "I jog down here every day. Sometimes when there's somebody smoking I have to leave. I can smell it from half a block if the wind's blowing just right."
Vestal has launched the Cedar Valley Tobacco-Free Parks page on Facebook to promote his effort and recruit allies.
He's also written a letter to the editor, emailed City Council members asking them to consider an ordinance to ban smoking in city parks and attended council meetings seeking to understand the local political process.
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Vestal already is getting some help from Pathways Behavioral Services, a nonprofit agency that receives Iowa Department of Public Health grant money to focus on smoking cessation and reducing tobacco use among children and adults.
Pathways' Erika Coleman, who attended Vestal's flagging event Thursday, was amazed at how many butts were laying around the playground.
"This really puts it more in perspective," Coleman said. "A family should be able to come to the parks and be safe … but kids might be picking those up if they don't know what they are."
The Iowa Smokefree Air Act adopted in 2008 prohibits smoking in public buildings and grounds, including outdoor sports arenas, stadiums, amphitheaters and designated seating areas of outdoor festivals or outdoor entertainment venues. But the law did not govern public parks.
Waterloo Leisure Services Director Paul Huting said the city follows the law regarding its buildings and facilities, but noted "smoking is not generally prohibited in city parks or on the course play of our golf courses."
Some cities have banned smoking in public parks while others have made it illegal to smoke within a certain distance of playgrounds.
New York City, Chicago and Boston have outlawed smoking in parks. More than 30 cities in Iowa, including Des Moines, West Des Moines, Ankeny and Marion, have instituted similar bans, according to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation.
Vestal, a former smoker who kicked the habit 15 years ago, started his campaign after being bothered by someone smoking at a music performance at the downtown RiverLoop Amphitheater, which is supposed to be nonsmoking by law.
He said more public support will be needed to get the City Council to consider a park smoking ban.