NEW YORK — Johnny Torres is marching around the southwest corner of Bryant Park with a lit cigarette in his hand and telling everyone within hearing distance that he has a right to smoke outside wherever he wants. "What's next: Are they going to tell me I can't smoke in my home?" he asks.
What has Mr. Torres upset is a new set of signs nestled in the ivy. Their message: If you want to unwind here, you can't light up.
As smokers such as Torres are now finding out, even the great outdoors is fair game for smoking restrictions. According to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, 93 communities now have ordinances covering smoking outside. While most of the new laws concern sports facilities or the entrances to buildings, almost half of them also restrict smoking in parks, plazas, or even beaches.
"More communities are looking at regulating smoking where people congregate, because nonsmokers find the exposure troubling," says Tim Filler, associate director for the foundation, which is based in Berkeley, Calif.
But the new regulations are about more than secondhand smoke. Today, communities are also trying to cut down on litter and prevent children from adopting what officials see as bad role models.
"It signals a change in the public mind with respect to smoking in public places," says Cliff Douglas of Tobacco Control Law & Policy Consulting in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Cigarette companies, however, say outdoor bans go too far. Instead, smokers should be "courteous" to nonsmokers, says Billy Abshaw, manager of media programs for Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco company. "Drifting smoke can be annoying," he agrees.
Even some antitobacco groups have some qualms. "We don't want to push people to move from outside to indoors to smoke," says Mr. Filler. But he adds that outdoor smoking can be "bothersome" in terms of the litter and the safety of people walking barefoot and stepping on a recently disposed cigarette.
Smokers, step over to the hemlock tree
So far, most prohibitions have involved relatively small areas. In New York's Bryant Park, for example, the no-smoking zone represents only about 2 to 3 percent of the land. "Smokers are an important constituency. We don't want to ban them," says Dan Biederman, president of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, which manages the city-owned park.
However, a New York City smokers' rights organization is less than convinced of the park's aim. Last Sunday, the NYC Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment held a "smoke-in" at the park. "It's ridiculous," says Audrey Silk of the group. "You are outside - it belongs to everyone. If you don't like my smoke, you can move."
Ms. Silk thinks nonsmokers will keep decreasing the space smokers can use. That's the aim of a proposed New York State law that would ban smoking in most parks and beaches. Local communities could designate smoking areas if they wanted to.
While Bryant Park is filled mainly with adults eating sushi, listening to bands, or just soaking up the sunshine, some public officials are concerned about parks where children play. That's the case in Greenburgh, N.Y., which has banned smoking in playgrounds and restricted it around city pools.
"If we limit the amount of smoking that children see when they are growing up, subsequently it might have a positive impact in discouraging them from smoking when they get older," says Paul Feiner, town supervisor.
No more butts in the sand?
The seaside community of Belmar, N.J., has gone further. A group of young antitobacco advocates had asked the city council for a total ban on smoking. Instead, Belmar decided to set aside designated smoking areas from the boardwalk to the waterfront.
The city has installed ashtrays in the hope that smokers won't bury cigarettes in the sand. "For the mayor, this was a big environmental issue. It takes 15 years for a cigarette butt to disintegrate. That's the main reason they did it," says Margaret Plummer, the town clerk.
In fact, that's why Pete Grannis (D) of Manhattan has proposed legislation in Albany. In a May 12 letter to the Albany Times Union he wrote, "Cigarette butts are probably the most littered item in America." The butts, he said, can be washed into water supplies, where "the toxic chemicals the filters are designed to trap leach out into sensitive ecosystems."
Mr. Abshaw of Philip Morris counters that smokers should be more mindful of where they put out their cigarettes.
In New York, the plan is to soft-pedal enforcement at first, says Mr. Biederman. "We're trying to be patient and make this work," he says.
In fact, as Mr. Torres marches around with his cigarette, no one stops him from smoking.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor