City smokers are being snuffed out, and if Mayor Bloomberg has his way, soon there may be no place left to inhale but your living room.
In 2003, New York City implemented in a smoking ban in all restaurants and bars, severing the sacred bond between nicotine and liquor and forcing the 17 percent of New Yorkers who classify themselves as smokers to take their habits to the curb.
Now City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has proposed a ban on lighting up in the city’s more than 1,700 parks and recreation facilities, and on its 14 miles of beaches, meaning that even the great outdoors would be closed to those with a nicotine habit.
“We don’t think children, parents, when they’re standing at soccer games, should have to be breathing in smoke from the person next to them,” Farley told reporters after unveiling the city’s new plan earlier this month. “We don’t think our children should have to be watching someone smoke.”
The mayor’s response to the commissioner’s proposal, however, was unusually tepid, and it seems unlikely that a full-fledged ban will gain traction with a mayoral election gathering steam.
But the wheels are now in motion. Across the country, cities have been taking steps that bring them closer and closer to an outright ban on smoking in nearly every corner but the home. Smoking may be legal, but local governments are learning that one of the best ways to choke the habit is not by telling people not to smoke, but by making it nearly impossible for them to do so.
“This is almost a prohibitionist crusade now,” said Christopher Snowdo, one of the leading experts on the anti-smoking movement and author of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking.
Like hard-core pornography he said, “We are getting very, very close to it being prohibited without it being illegal.”
And city smokers are feeling the burn.
“This is the new and improved bigotry,” said Audrey Silk, founder of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (C.L.A.S.H.), the city’s most prominent group protecting smokers’ rights.
California has been the leader in the nation’s bid to stamp out smokers entirely. In numerous cities throughout the state, smoking is prohibited not only in parks and on beaches, but in personal vehicles and on major public streets. The city of Belmont banned smoking in apartment buildings and condos; Berkley outlawed it on sidewalks.
Other states have been following California’s clean-air lead. Some 30 states have now banned smoking in all work places, including restaurants and bars, said Dr. Kenneth E. Warner, co-author of Tobacco Control Policy and dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. He predicts that in the next five years, almost all states will move to the smoke-free column.
Bloomberg, himself a heavy smoker for years, has long spearheaded the war against tobacco in New York and has personally donated hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to fund anti-smoking research and programs.
To the surprise of many, the mayor backed down from the commissioner’s beach and park proposal almost immediately. Over the past week, he has acknowledged both the minimal health risk associated with second-hand smoke outdoors, as well as pointed out practical concerns with enforcing a full-fledged ban in parks when police have bigger fires to fight.
“The real issue is if you’re sitting in the middle of Sheep Meadow and you’re the only one there, are you doing any damage to anybody other than killing yourself? Probably not,” the mayor said, raising eyebrows among supporters.
Mayoral spokesman Jason Post reiterated that Bloomberg’s office supports the idea of a full-fledged ban in parks and on beaches, but officials “have to study what is practical.”
For now, the mayor has suggested a partial ban in certain sections of city parks instead of banning smoking entirely. But make no mistake. The mayor’s opinion of smoking is just as hard-lined as it has always been.
“This city is not walking away from our commitment to make it as difficult and expensive [for] smokers [as] we possibly can,” the mayor assured.
Anti-smoking experts point out that Bloomberg’s words mark a crucial shift in rhetoric away from warning of the dangers of second-hand smoke—which has been at the heart of the non-smokers’ rights movement for decades—and toward an open admission that smokers are no longer welcome to pollute the city.
“Over the last couple of days, Bloomberg is specifically saying this isn’t about second-hand smoking, it’s not about health,” Snowdo said. “This is about, ‘I don’t like smoking and I will make life as difficult as possible for smokers.’”
Smokers like Silk say they feel the battle has shifted from an attack on smoking to an outright assault on smokers themselves.
“Smoke-free society is a misnomer. It’s smoker-free society,” she said. “We’re the new second-class citizens.”
She said this shift is optimized by the mayor’s “savior complex,” shared by non-smokers who feel themselves superior. While accepting an anti-smoking award in Berlin last year, for instance, Bloomberg said, “It’s relatively easy to stop, and once you stop, you’re going to feel so much superior to those who do smoke that there’s instant gratification,” the Daily News reported.
Part of this is necessity. Unlike in enclosed spaces like bars and restaurants, there is no scientific evidence to prove that smokers in outdoor public areas cause harm to anyone but themselves. This makes it near impossible to argue that banning smoking in parks and on beaches is a matter of public health.
“We don’t have the data today to demonstrate that outdoor smoking causes a significant health hazard,” Dr. Warner said.
If these policies are going to move forward now, he said, it’s going to be cloaked in the language of social change, not protecting people from second-hand smoke.
But some worry that this change in rhetoric will open the door to a fierce backlash from smokers and civil libertarians alike, whose arguments have long paled in comparison to disturbing images of blackened lungs, gaunt cancer patients in hospital gowns and air tubes hosed through holes in throats. These new bans take the crusade one step too far, they warn. Already, online message boards are peppered with vitriol, and newspaper editorials are complaining of one more extension of the city’s “nanny state.”
“It’s not about health anymore,” Silk said. “It’s about imposing their will on others on the ‘correct’ way to behave.”
Even anti-smoking advocates worry that the paternalistic move could do more harm than good.
“It just crosses a line to me,” said Dr. Peter D. Jacobson, director of the Center for Law, Ethics, and Health at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and author of The Political Evolution of Anti-Smoking Legislation.
If the city goes forward with the proposal, he warned, officials run the risk of not only alienating smokers but also undermining support for more important pubic health initiatives.
“There’s a point at which people don’t want the government telling them how to behave. That’s a huge cost,” he said, especially when the health benefit is “negligible.”
New York is not the first city outside of California to extend its ban to outdoor public spaces. In 2007, Chicago banned smoking in its playgrounds and beaches. In Delaware’s Lewes City, smoking is banned in parks and playgrounds. Even the Pentagon has recently discussed the possibility of banning smoking in the military.
In those cities, as in New York, the new laws have been embraced relatively painlessly. Despite rabble-rousers at the time who threatened of massive public outcry and stinging losses in sales, few protested once the 2002 bar and restaurant legislation came into effect. Since the city passed legislation making smoking in indoor commercial spaces illegal, New York’s smoking rate has dropped from 21.5 percent in 2002 to 15.8 percent in 2008.
That mirrors the trend throughout the country. Smoking rates have been shrinking dramatically in every age group, with people consuming less and taking it up less often, said John Pierce, who leads the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the University of California, San Diego’s School of Medicine. In California, the smoking rate among young people is down to just 8 percent, he noted.
“Definitely smoking’s on its way out,” Pierce said.
While Bloomberg may not be brandishing his guns this time around, others say he may have already won the battle.
“What Bloomberg has done is he’s won on the principle that it is OK to ban smoking in some outdoor areas,” Snowdo said, referring to the mayor’s partial-ban proposal.
And once smoking is banned from some outdoor public spaces, he added, it won’t take much to extend that ban, first throughout parks, and then to other outdoor places like sidewalks and streets. It’s a very small step toward banning smoking everywhere.
So is this the beginning of the end of smoking in the city?
“The question people are starting to raise is, ‘Are you just trying to make smoking outlawed, like marijuana?’” Pierce said. While no one is willing to “go there,” he added, “They seem to be going there without actually making it illegal.”
But Silk and her legions still plan to continue fighting Bloomberg’s mission to snuff out cigarettes.
“Tobacco is still legal,” she said.
And as long as it is, she’ll continue to take a drag.
The Benefits of an Outdoor Ban
What makes a ban on smoking in outdoor public places so hard to swallow for so many is that there is no scientific proof that smokers who puff in parks, on street corners or on beaches are harming anyone but themselves. While there is little doubt that inhaling the deadly carcinogens released when cigarettes burn is harmful to non-smokers’ health, most experts agree that, when smoked outdoors, the concentrations are too low to negatively affect the average passerby.
“There’s no safe level of second-hand smoke,” said John Pierce, who leads the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the University of California, San Diego’s School of Medicine. But, he said, unless you have asthma or are highly sensitive to tobacco smoke, “For the majority of people, the risk [outdoors] is going to be small.”
And while the smell may be bothersome to others, if you’re waking through the park or lounging on the beach, it’s usually not all that taxing to move upwind of an insistent chimney.
Moreover, New York’s air quality is lousy, even without cigarettes burning. The city’s air is among the most polluted in the nation, thanks, in part, to its high density and traffic congestion. In Manhattan, there are so many carcinogenic chemicals in the air that residents face an elevated risk of developing cancer, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report released earlier this year.
But smoking cessation expert Dr. Daniel Seidman of the Columbia University Medical Center said that banning smoking in parks and on beaches would be beneficial to one group of residents: smokers who are trying to quit. Being exposed to other smokers can be enough to trigger a relapse in someone who is trying to kick the habit, he said, and not seeing others smoking in public can help reduce the temptation.
“Just as smoking is contagious, so is quitting,” he said.
A Global War on Smoking
The nation’s first state to ban smoking in most public spaces was Minnesota, whose Clean Indoor Air Act, passed in 1975, was the first to require non-smoking sections in restaurants. In 2007, the Freedom to Breathe Act was passed, which banned smoking completely in all state bars and restaurants.
But California has been the nation’s leader in the war against cigarettes for more than a decade. It imposed a statewide ban on smoking in enclosed workplaces in 1995 and numerous cities there have introduced bans that limit smoking outdoors as well as in.
In Los Angeles and San Diego, smoking is prohibited in parks and on beaches. In the city of Calabases, which is reported to have the strictest smoking laws in the nation, smoking has been banned since 2006 in most indoor and outdoor public spaces, except for a handful of designated smoking areas. In Belmont, smoking is illegal in all outdoor spaces, as well as in apartment and condominium complexes; in Berkeley, it is banned on all commercial sidewalks.
In 2007, Chicago banned smoking on beaches and in playgrounds, though it is still allowed in many parks.
In 2004, the Republic of Ireland became the first country to implement a nation-wide smoking ban in the workplace, including in bars and restaurants. In July, the country outlawed in-store tobacco advertising and displays. It was also the first country to ban smoking within three meters of a public building.
Selling and smoking tobacco in public were banned in Bhutan in 2004 and 2005, making it the only country to have officially outlawed the habit. However, in July, the sales ban was lifted in favor of taxation.
Smoking in indoor workplaces is banned in every province and territory in Canada. In many provinces, retailers must keep also tobacco products hidden from site. In January, Ontario made it illegal to smoke in any vehicle containing children.
China’s Guangzhou and Jiangmen provinces have banned smoking in indoor public places, including restaurants, schools and supermarkets. In Hong Kong, smoking was banned on beaches and in most outdoor public recreational areas, including many playgrounds.
In certain parts of Tokyo and Kyoto Japan, it is illegal to smoke on city streets.
Who would have thought? In 1997, France banned smoking in most public places, including cafés, bars, nightclubs, stations and museums. Smoking rooms are allowed but are tightly regulated.
In 2005, Italy enacted a nation-wide smoking ban that prohibits smoking in indoor public places, including restaurants and bars. Special smoking rooms are permitted but rare.
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