New York City's smoking ban to cover outdoor areas, including parks and beaches

Monday, February 21, 2011
Katherin Burns, left, smokes with Shannon Roy on Friday in the pedestrian plaza in Times Square in New York. (Frank Franklin II ~ Assoicated Press)

NEW YORK -- The smokers of New York huddle in phone booths, hurry down cold streets and hover at office-building doorways during breaks, puffs of smoke giving them away.

They are an endangered breed. Their numbers shrinking through loss of habitat, come summer they will have even fewer places to light up as a ban on smoking in parks, beaches and public plazas goes into effect -- including Central Park and swaths of tourist-packed Times Square.

Smokers have yielded as places to puff have diminished over the years, but many of them and even some nonsmokers are saying the city has gone too far this time.

Health experts disagree on the hazards of a whiff of smoke outdoors, and critics argue cigarette smoke is just one of many nuisances to contend with in a crowded city. They also question whether the city is trampling on civil liberties.

"I think they're getting too personal," said Monica Rodriguez, smoking a Newport at a phone booth near a pedestrian plaza south of Times Square. "I don't think it's OK. They're taking away everyone's privileges."

The city health commissioner, Thomas A. Farley, said the ban is aimed at protecting the most vulnerable, such as asthma sufferers who are susceptible to respiratory attacks from exposure to secondhand smoke; children who might pick up smoking after seeing adults with lit cigarettes. It's also meant to reduce litter.

But most of all, he said, it was about ensuring that the city's 14 miles of beach and more than 1,000 parks were free of the nuisance and open to all.

"Parks and beaches are special places that anybody should enjoy," he said.

The City Council approved the bill Feb. 2; the mayor has 20 days to sign it. A separate bill that would have set aside smoking areas in parks did not pass.

Those who break the law could face fines of $50 per violation.

But instead of active enforcement, the city will rely on signs and social pressure, said Jessica Scaperotti, a spokeswoman for Bloomberg.

"We expect that this will be primarily self-enforcing," she said. "There is a lot of public support."

The measure continues a nearly decade-long effort under the mayor, a smoker-turned-anti-tobacco crusader, to reduce smoking through public policy.

The cornerstone of his administration's strategy has been an indoor smoking ban in all workplaces, including bars and restaurants. In 2010, the city issued 85 violations to bars and clubs that flouted the ban, the Health Department said.

The hazards of secondhand smoke are well-documented. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no safe level of exposure. But how secondhand smoke contributes to environmental hazards outdoors is an emerging area of study.

Dr. Michael Siegel, an expert on the public health effects of smoking who testified in support of the city's indoor smoking ban, said science may not support the idea of smoke-free beaches and parks.

"I disagree that there is a scientific basis for banning smoking in wide open outdoor spaces where people can easily avoid exposure," said Siegel, who works in Boston, where the City Council is proposing a similar ban. "Some of the health groups have been exaggerating the evidence."

In one of the few published studies on outdoor tobacco smoke, scientists at Stanford University said in a 2007 paper that smoking outdoors might be considered a "hazard" or "nuisance," including when "eating dinner with a smoker at a sidewalk cafe, sitting next to a smoker on a park bench, or standing near a smoker outside a building."

"If one is upwind from a smoker, levels most likely will be negligible," the authors wrote.

With such strict bans, the tobacco-control movement may be in danger of losing its credibility, Siegel said.

"The public is going to just think of us as these zealots who want to ban smoking everywhere," he said. "It's going to make it even harder to pass legitimate smoking regulations in states that don't currently have them."

The American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation counted more than 450 municipalities with policies of smoke-free parks and more than 200 with smokeless beaches, including Los Angeles.

And there are signs that anti-smoking ordinances could get tougher in the future, with some communities extending bans into private homes, especially apartment buildings where secondhand smoke can permeate into other units.

In New York City, especially during the summer, places like Times Square and Central Park get packed with humanity, making exposure to secondhand smoke a distinct possibility.

On a recent winter day in Bryant Park, in midtown Manhattan, a few hardy souls braving the cold gave the ban a mixed review.

Katie Geba, 19, said a smoke-free park would be a blessing.

"I don't like the smell of it," said the college student, reading a book at a table in a patch of sunlight. "At the same time, (the ban) infringes on your right to do what you want to do."

Monika Solich, 31, of Queens, said she could understand banning smoking in enclosed spaces like bars and restaurants. "But this is an open space," she said, incredulous, as she sat at a table, smoking a Marlboro and sipping coffee.

"I mean, what's next? Ridiculous. Where are they going to ban next?" she said. "There should at least be an area for smokers where we can smoke."

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