The campaign to reduce tobacco use in public places crosses a new frontier today with Mayor Thomas M. Menino poised to unveil no smoking signs that will be posted in 130 children’s playgrounds in Boston parks.
The signs, which warn, “Children at Play, No Smoking,’’ are intended to protect youngsters from breathing in secondhand cigarette smoke, which can cause asthma attacks, respiratory infections, lung cancer, and heart disease.
After frequently fielding complaints from parents about smoke and cigarette butts discarded in these tot lots, city officials designed the sign campaign that they say will help empower residents to speak up when others light up.
More than 570 communities across the country, including 14 in Massachusetts, have enacted laws prohibiting smoking in public parks, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, a California group that tracks the legislation.
Boston’s campaign comes with no changes to city ordinances or fines for offenders.
“I know that nothing we put on the law books could be as strong as a parent who is trying to protect their kids from secondhand smoke and cigarette debris,’’ Menino said in remarks prepared for this afternoon’s announcement in Charlestown’s Peter Looney Park.
Earlier this year, two city councilors proposed a mandatory ban in public parks and beaches.
Councilors Felix G. Arroyo and Salvatore LaMattina, both asthma sufferers who are especially sensitive to secondhand smoke, filed an order for a public hearing on the issue.
That hearing was put on hold, as officials from the city’s Public Health Commission and Parks Department met with the councilors to further study the issue.
The group ultimately decided that enforcement would be challenging because Boston lacked the resources to police such an ordinance, Arroyo said.
But they all agreed the problem of secondhand smoke needed to be tackled in tot lots, the popular fenced-in park areas for children that dot the city from Brighton and Back Bay to Dorchester and Jamaica Plain.
“We are hoping for self-enforcement from park users,’’ Arroyo said.
“You don’t have to always hit people with a hammer to get what you want,’’ he said. “We are letting them know it’s a smoke-free zone and then see what the result is.’’
LaMattina said the sign initiative is a first step.
“I am hoping that people will report to us if people are smoking, and then we would take it to another level, if we have to,’’ he said.
Some studies suggest that sitting just 3 feet from a smoker outdoors can expose a person to the same level of secondhand smoke as if they were sitting indoors with a smoker, said Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, which paid for the signs with money from a federal grant.
Boston’s workplace smoking ban already restricts smoking in some outdoor areas that are considered workplaces, including patios, decks, and loading docks that are occupied by employees during the work day.
Earlier this month, the Boston Housing Authority finalized plans to ban smoking in public housing, beginning in September 2012.
The growing push to clear the air has at times provoked heated debate about whether the quest to protect public health infringes on individual rights.
Dr. Michael Siegel, a Boston University School of Public Health tobacco control specialist who championed workplace smoking bans, said the councilors’ earlier push to ban smoking in all parks went too far.
He worried that such a crusade would undermine other efforts to ban smoking in places where people could not as easily move to avoid the smoke.
But restricting the effort to tot lots, even if the initiative becomes an ordinance, makes sense, he said.
Cigarettes can pose a hazard to children who are running around, with lighted cigarettes at their eye level, and there have been cases of children burned in playgrounds, he said.
“There is a large number of children with asthma who could suffer an asthma attack if they’re exposed to secondhand smoke, even for a limited time,’’ he said. “You can’t expect that children are going to get up and leave because this is a designated area for them.’’