Coalitions in Action: Getting to the H.E.A.R.T. of the Matter

 

The Health Education Awareness and Research on Tobacco (H.E.A.R.T.) Coalition is a comprehensive substance abuse prevention organization with a special expertise in educating and promoting healthy behaviors, tobacco use prevention and cessation in the City of Atlanta and Fulton County, Georgia. The coalition’s work in this field successfully led to the adoption of ordinances by the City of Atlanta City Council and by the Fulton County Commissioners creating smoke-free parks and recreation centers. These ordinances directly affect 343 parks in the City and 15 parks in the County.

In the Atlanta Metropolitan Area, there are several different governmental systems. Two of them are the City of Atlanta with a population of about 450,000, and Fulton County, the largest county in Georgia with more than 1 million residents. In 2011, H.E.A.R.T. began its advocacy initiative to create smoke-free parks in the City of Atlanta. The process took about a year and a half from beginning to end.

“We were so happy when the Atlanta City Council passed the Smoke Free Ordinance for the parks and recreation centers within the city limits,” explains Tyrone Bell, the coalition’s Operations Manager. “Resistance came from some members of the general community who felt it was their right to smoke in public areas.”

The passage of this first ordinance laid the groundwork for the adoption of a similar mandate in Fulton County, which passed its own law in September 2016. Toward that end, H.E.A.R.T. worked with the County Commissioners, County Parks and Recreation Department, as well as with other organizations and coalition members to see this governmental process through fruition.

“There was less resistance in Fulton County, and the County Commissioners were supportive of the Ordinance,” Bell said. “The City’s ordinance and the involvement of so many diverse advocates really helped.”

Among the advocates for both ordinances were coalition-trained youth. Using the Strategic Prevention Framework (SPF) for implementing change, the coalition worked with a group of 11 young people, training them about how to privately and publicly talk with elected officials. Three of them made public presentations during a hearing before the Fulton County Commissioners. They underscored their concern about the dangers of secondhand smoke exposure in local parks, where youth engaged in afterschool projects and sports related events.

“They were fantastic and received a round of applause from the Commissioners,” Bell said. “Afterwards, we treated the teens to pizza to celebrate!”

One primary concern of Fulton County residents was how a smoke-free ordinance would be enforced. Both the City and County are following the same model concerning this matter, understanding education is necessary for the ordinance to be effective. In the City of Atlanta, where the ordinance has been in effect for several years, there is signage saying that “Smoking is Prohibited.” When someone is found smoking by City Parks and Recreation employees, the crew members explain the smoking ban, and tell people about the fines. Thus far, there haven’t been any problems.

H.E.A.R.T. is currently evaluating the success of the city’s ordinance.  They are patrolling the parks doing paper and pencil surveys, as well as making note of cigarette butt litter and sightings of smoking.

“In our visual examination, we haven’t observed much smoking,” Bell says. “But we still see butts around the parks, so we know that it is still happening.”

The coalition is also stepping up its educational campaign so that the public in both the city and county are more aware of the ordinances. It is creating palm cards, brochures and a PSA, while at the same time signage is going up about the smoking ban in the Fulton County parks. Plus, the coalition has received coverage in numerous media outlets, including Atlanta’s main newspaper, the Journal-Constitution. H.E.A.R.T. has also been commended by the Georgia State Department of Health for its outstanding and heartfelt work.