New York poised to ban smoking in Central Park, Times Square

Smokers in New York will have fewer places to puff when Mayor Michael Bloomberg signs a new law banning smoking in the city's parks and on its beaches.

Gary Hershorn/Reuters
The New York City Council passed a law Thursday that would ban smoking on the city's beaches and in its parks – and Times Square (pictured here on Jan. 26) would be included.

The air in Central Park, the green refuge at the heart of Manhattan, is going to be even fresher under a new city law that will make it harder for the city’s smokers to find a place to puff away.

The new law, which bans smoking at city parks and beaches and was passed by the City Council on Wednesday, will make New York one of the best places in the world for nonsmokers or one of the toughest on smokers, depending on your point of view.

Ninety days after Mayor Michael Bloomberg signs the bill into law, smoking will also be illegal in such places as the pedestrian mall in Times Square and on the boardwalk and beach at Coney Island. Violators could be punished with $50 fines.

The city already bans smoking in bars and restaurants, a move that was followed by scores of other cities. And, smokers in the city pay the highest taxes in the nation – $5.85 a pack.

New York City has been a leader on smoke-free issues and a lot of other cities will follow,” says Bronson Frick, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights in Berkeley, Calif. “What happens in New York tends to spread around the world.”

The California Legislature passed a bill early in 2010 banning smoking at state parks and beaches, but it was vetoed last May by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

According to Mr. Frick’s organization, a national advocacy group, there are already 478 towns and cities, plus the entire Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, that ban smoking in their parks. Smoking on beaches is also banned in Puerto Rico, Maine’s state parks, and in 102 municipalities, though many are small towns. New York will be the largest city to ban both.

“It is in line with making more livable communities and helping insure that these green spaces dedicated to active living be smoke free,” says Frick. The rationale for making the beaches smoke-free, he says, is to prevent pollution.

“There is a lot of research that the cigarette butts are highly toxic to aquatic creatures,” he says. “It is not just all about second-hand smoke.”

Tough laws' impact

New York’s tough antismoking laws have had an effect, say nonsmoking advocates. Nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 20.6 percent of adults and 19.5 percent of high school students say they smoked in 2009.

In New York, 15.8 percent of adults smoked in 2009 and only 8.4 percent of high school students.

“New York’s numbers are well below the national rates because New York has implemented a comprehensive and aggressive approach that includes high taxes and hard-hitting antismoking campaigns,” says Vince Willmore, a vice president at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington.

He notes that Mayor Bloomberg has been one of the leaders in the antismoking efforts. “The mayor is a tough guy,” he says.

Despite the city’s efforts, however, there are still 1 million smokers on the streets, according to the city’s Health Commissioner, Thomas Farley.

1 million smokers on city streets

Once the city starts to implement its new rules, those smokers will find they are prohibited from smoking in 1,700 city parks and on 14 miles of beaches. The city has also included “pedestrian plazas,” areas located within the bed of a roadway that may contain benches, tables or other facilities for pedestrian use.

One of those is in the Times Square area. As he walked through the plaza smoking a cigarette Thursday, a man who identified himself as “Mordecai” said, “Mark me down as unhappy.” Would he obey the rules once they go into effect? “Not likely,” he replied.

Only a few blocks away, in Bryant Park, where smoking will also be outlawed, “Ryan” was puffing on a cigarette on his way through the area. He says he would not break the law, but adds, “Do I think it’s fair? No.”

'Smoke-in' at park proposed

Audrey Silk, who founded a group called NYC C.L.A.S.H. (Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment), says she won’t be surprised if smokers ignore the new prohibition. “This is outrageous and uncalled for,” she says.

Ms. Silk says she plans on organizing a “smoke-in” at City Hall Park on the effective date, which is likely to be sometime in May. “They have unleashed a monster, people are so angry and asking me to do this.”

Silk was equally indignant in 2003 when New York passed its restaurant and bar antismoking rules. She predicted it would result in fewer patrons and the laws would be overturned.

“Her predictions of the devastation of New York hospitality industry turned out not to be true,” says Frick who notes even Raleigh, N.C., long friendly to tobacco companies, on Tuesday made smoking in its parks illegal.

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