Smoking has long been illegal in New York City bars and restaurants, including open-air restaurants, as well as in public transit, workplaces, schools and stores, among other places. On May 23rd, New York also joined 500 other U.S. municipalities that have banned smoking in parks and public squares. Under the new law, smokers who light up anywhere in New York’s more than 1,700 parks and pedestrian plazas, or along its 22 kilometers of beaches, could face a $50 fine.
Park visitors questioned on one of the last days before the ban took effect had mixed feelings about the new law. Micah Bozeman, who was sitting with his friend Megan Burns, a smoker, said he thought the ban was a good idea, on balance. “I don’t want cigarette smoke in my face when I’m sitting in a park. I don’t want it in my face while walking down the street, either,” he said. Nor did he want to lie in the beach and find cigarette butts in the sand. On the other hand, Bozeman noted, “People have an addiction. They need to smoke.”
Exhaling a cloud of smoke, his friend Burns exclaimed, “We’re outdoors! I don’t see how it could really bother anyone that much.” She added that she doesn’t smoke much, but prefers doing it outdoors, where she’s not so exposed to her own secondhand smoke. “I don’t like being trapped in an apartment with smoke.”
Nowhere to go for a smoke?
“It’s stupid,” said Jean Pierre, another smoker. “I think it’s crazy, because they’re making it so that you can’t go nowhere and have a cigarette.” He said that he is considerate and doesn’t light up without asking people nearby if they mind. “I do show respect for people who don’t smoke. I will get up and move if my smoke is bothering you,” he said.
“A lot of people are considerate,” conceded Sharon Stahlnecker, a tourist from Oregon. “But it’s just that those of us who don’t smoke, appreciate no smoke.” Michael Walters, who was sitting down for a lunch-hour game of chess in City Hall Park, agreed. “I think the ban is good. It will improve the health of the public, the smoker and the nonsmoker alike,” he said.
That is also the hope of the Bay Terrace Community Alliance in Queens, whose members say they were the first to lobby for the smoking ban. On the cool gray day that the new law took effect, they gathered in a riverside park to celebrate. Activist Warren Schreiber said that discarded cigarette butts were a litter nuisance and a hazard to wild birds. And he said that children should not see people smoking in the parks, even if it can’t be avoided elsewhere.
Some anti-smoking activists fear the ban could trigger a public backlash
Yet other anti-smoking advocates say that people’s health is not endangered by momentary exposure to smoke diluted in the open air. They argue that the ban could lead to a backlash against more important anti-tobacco campaigns. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said the emphasis should be on the 22 American states that still allow smoking in bars, restaurants and casinos.
“My fear is that we’re going to detract from smoke-free policies where they’re really a life-and-death matter for employees,” he said. “There are still about one-third of workers in the country who are not protected from secondhand smoke in the workplace. The levels of exposure in these environments are enormous, and people are exposed chronically. And they can’t escape, unlike a park, where you can just get up and move.”
Siegel also contends that banning smoking in the open space of the city’s parks will only lead to more concentrated secondhand smoke on New York sidewalks, at park entrances and in people’s homes. “We know that chronic exposure to secondhand smoke in the home is a very important source of exposure and disease for people, especially for children,” he said. “So if anything, the message we want to be sending to smokers is ‘please, do smoke outdoors! That’s where you really should be smoking to avoid [these] effects.’"
However, Rebecca Kalin, head of a group called Asthma Free School Zone, noted that even passing exposure to smoke can cause severe reactions in some people with asthma. “It’s not always easy to move away from a smoker,” Kalin said. “And it would be impossible to say, well, it’s okay here, and it’s not okay there. The goal really, is to eradicate smoking, eradicate tobacco. It is dangerous. It is life-threatening. It takes more lives than many other diseases put together.”
City officials say they hope the law will be self-enforcing, and that park officers, not police, will issue warnings and tickets. But critics predict the ban will be widely ignored in New York’s thousands of hectares of parkland. And one smokers’ rights group, the New York chapter of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment [CLASH], said it will flout the rule with a "smoke-in-the-park" protest at a beach in Brooklyn. In a statement, the group said, “This law will be paid the respect it deserves.”