Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Smoke-Free Sidewalks in New York City

The heavily traveled corridors of outdoor New York City are officially smoke-free under a new law that took effect there Monday. It’s a measure that makes sense for New York and may make some sense for other major cities.

The purpose of smoking bans is to protect non-smokers from the effects of cigarette smoke — a more urgent consideration now that we know that a single puff of cigarette smoke can trigger a heart attack in a bystander. Smokers like to imagine that their cigarette smoke is dispersed by the outsider air, but that isn’t a realistic prospect on New York City sidewalks, where there are almost certain to be several strangers passing by within a seven-foot radius no matter where you stand. The ban covers plazas, parks, and beaches but does not cover the less-crowded median strips or parking lots.

New York City is not the first place to ban smoking in selected outdoor areas — Puerto Rico, for example, has long banned smoking on beaches — and it is remarkable how little controversy there has been surrounding the new rules. There are some gripes, of course, but nothing at all compared to when the ban on smoking in restaurants took effect.

Budget pressure helped push the new measure through. Cigarettes account for half of the litter that city workers have to pick up, and facing the same budget pressures as other municipalities, New York couldn’t realistically continue to spend so much money cleaning up after the dirty habit of a small fraction of its citizens.