Whether you’re looking to avoid secondhand smoke or light up freely, some areas of the city are smokier than others
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the city, killing more than one New Yorker every hour—more than AIDS, alcohol, murder and suicide combined. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, New York is also a leading advocate against smoking, instituting the largest excise tax on tobacco in the country ($4.35/pack) and some of the harshest bans on public smoking (in parks, plazas, restaurants, and bars). As a result, the New York smoking scene has changed most dramatically in the last 10 years, shrinking from 22 percent to 14 percent of adults, which brings it below the national average of 19 percent.
When studied separately, Manhattan looks even better: its smoking population declined by 39 percent down to 13 percent of adult in 2011, the lowest among the five boroughs. Still, that number might vary up to 5 percentage points depending on the neighborhood.
Although the rate of smoking halved in Lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village between 2002 and 2010, it still remains highest downtown. While the employed overall smoke 10 percent less than the unemployed, the gap shrinks as income increases. More high-paid workers have smoked at one point in their lives than those who are poor and unemployed or out of the work force. Similarly, although more blacks and Hispanics are current smokers, more whites have smoked cigarettes in the past.
This explains why the Upper East Side has the second-highest percentage, and the highest number, of current smokers in the city. Nearly 90,000 or 30 percent of East Siders, most of them greying, admit to being former smokers, probably during the 1960s Mad Men-era when smoking was as natural as breathing. However, the East Side cannot hide behind the excuse of having more elderly residents (nor can the Village claim to have disproportionally more young smokers) because the age groups are fairly distributed among all neighborhoods in New York.
Upon crossing Central Park, one finds that the grass really is greener (and the air cleaner) on the other side. Seventy percent of people living on the Upper West Side are considered non-smokers (have smoked less than 100 cigarettes in their life) with fewer than half the number of current smokers than on the Upper East Side. The West Side also has half the number of residents, but still, only 8 percent of them are smokers—the lowest percentage out of all the neighborhoods.
It is fitting that, between uptown and downtown – from Chelsea to Union Square to Gramercy Park—the rate of smoking is the median and mean for the city: around 13 percent. In lower midtown, there is also an average rate of poverty, unemployment, education and ethnic diversity.
When measuring the health index of the city, however, one must take into account both the rate of smoking and of second-hand smoke for a clearer picture. While there are about 1 million New Yorkers who smoke, there are 1.5 million New Yorkers who are exposed to secondhand smoke—with 35 percent and 25 percent found in public places and workplaces, respectively, though it is illegal. Another 10 percent of secondhand smoke comes from homes, which are not yet covered by the law.
Not surprisingly, the city map of secondhand smoke closely aligns with that of smokers, 60 percent of whom are disinclined to adopt a smoke-free housing policy. In 2010, 5 percent of homes in Greenwich Village housed smokers, followed by 2 percent on the Upper East Side (6,000 homes), 2 percent in Union Square (3,000) and half a percent on the Upper West Side (1,000).
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