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msnbc.com
updated 9/15/2011 8:34:36 AM ET 2011-09-15T12:34:36

The devastating drought in Texas may hold one unexpected health benefit.

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Houston Mayor Annise Parker told the Houston Chronicle she is considering a ban on smoking in the city’s 380 parks because of fire risk.

“This drought is a crisis situation,” Parker told the Chronicle. “I am leaning toward a ban on smoking cigarettes, pipes, cigars — a ban on smoking in city parks. But what I want first is Houstonians to understand why we need to do it and, if at all possible, to create that voluntary compliance.”

Some of the nation’s largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, have already banned smoking in outdoor spaces, in part to reduce the litter associated with discarded cigarettes but mostly in recognition of the dangers posed by secondhand smoke.

Story: Texas drought worsens from 'abysmal'

Secondhand smoke is linked to nearly 50,000 deaths per year and can exacerbate such health conditions as asthma, particularly in young children, according to the American Lung Association.

“There are a lot of benefits from a public health perspective,” said Dr. Abigail Halperin, director of the Tobacco Studies Program at the University of Washington about an outdoor ban. “Even outdoors, secondhand smoke can be quite harmful to people.”

Yet outdoor bans have proven controversial to enact. In New York City earlier this year, several city council members spoke against a move they said would infringe on individual liberties.

Dr. Joel Dunnington, professor of radiology at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, said the mayor’s proposed ban should make sense to anyone who’s seen the damage from this summer’s wildfires. The added health benefit is a bonus, especially for children who could play in parks without seeing smokers.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is de-normalize smoking as a behavior.” In other words, if young people don’t see people smoking, they are less likely to try it themselves.

And Halperin believes even a temporary ban in Houston parks could make it easier to enact a permanent one in the future.

“Once they go into place, everybody likes them,” Halperin said.

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