Smoking ban in NYC parks over the line?

0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily via agencies, February 22, 2011
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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 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."

Even actress and TV host Whoopi Goldberg spoke out against the ban on national television, noting shortly after the city council approved the ban that inhaling exhaust fumes from the city's fleet of taxis and buses isn't exactly healthy either.

"There should be a designated place, and I'm tired of being treated like some damn criminal," said the co-host of ABC's The View during the show's Feb 3 broadcast.

"If they're really worried about the smell in the air, give us electric buses, give us electric cars, and then I'll understand."

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. He also said children 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 22.5 km 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 on 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 Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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

She pointed to a 2009 poll commissioned by the New York City Coalition for a Smoke-Free City that surveyed 1,002 residents and showed that 65 percent supported a smoking ban in parks and beaches.

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 city has also tried to snuff out smoking by raising taxes on cigarettes, helping the price of a pack soar to $11 or more; through a public education campaign that has featured grisly images of diseased lungs; and by offering free nicotine patch kits for smokers to help them quit.

The Health Department argues that its tobacco-control strategy saved an estimated 6,300 lives between 2002 and 2009, mostly from a reduction in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as cancer. The smoking rate dropped 27 percent during the same period.

But the department says smoking continues to be the city's leading cause of preventable death. A city study published in 2009 found that residents are exposed to more secondhand smoke than the national average, he said.

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