The End of Outdoor Smoking?

By Dirk Hanson 06/07/11

"Bans on smoking in parks and beaches raise questions about the acceptable limits for government,” says the New England Journal of Medicine.

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An earth hater caught in the act.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

Last week, smoking outdoors in New York City became illegal. Okay, that’s not quite fair to say—it became illegal to smoke in Central Park, or at Brighton Beach, or along the newly pedestrian mallways of Times Square. There is no smoking along the High Line. There is no smoking at any park, beach, or pedestrian mall. As both the tobacco industry and anti-smoking activists well know, this was an iconic victory that has the potential to change smoking laws in virtually every other American city. As New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley put it at a public hearing: “I think in the future, we will look back on this time and say ‘How could we have ever tolerated smoking in a park?’”

More than 500 towns and cities in 43 different states have already enacted laws banning smoking “in outdoor recreation areas,” according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.  But the anti-tobacco movement, frustrated by the slow pace of gains over recent years, with rates of smoking remaining essentially unchanged, has to face the fact that an outright ban on cigarettes would result in a ghastly black market, with all the crime that goes with it. But a ban on outdoor smoking is something altogether different, and “steadily winnowing the spaces in which smoking is legally allowed may be leading to a kind of de facto prohibition.” More and more employers prohibit smoking in doorways, within ten feet of doorways, anywhere on university campuses, and so on. No one has voted to make cigarette smoking illegal. But the public space in which this legal activity can be pursued is disappearing. “In the absence of direct health risks to others,” says the New England Journal of Medicine, “bans on smoking in parks and beaches raise questions about the acceptable limits for government to impose on conduct,” the authors conclude. Not to mention issues of personal autonomy, individual choice, and the stigma attached to addictive behavior.

Smokers took it outside, eventually, as they were asked to. Now they're being asked to take it behind the closed doors of their homes, and keep it there. Perhaps this will end up being another controversial case for the ACLU.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]