The disappearing boundaries of cigarette prohibition.

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 15 2009 11:11 AM

Smoke-Free Planet

The disappearing boundaries of cigarette prohibition.

No smoking sign. Click image to expand.
A no-smoking sign in China

Hey, you! Stop smoking in my atmosphere!

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

That's the message from New York City, where the mayor and health commissioner have just released a policy agenda called "Take Care New York 2012."* Page 10 of the document says the city's health department "will work with the city's Department of Parks and Recreation and other entities to expand smoke-free spaces to include city parks and public beaches." The city council speaker is very interested in the idea, but her help might not be necessary if the parks department can implement the ban as a regulation.

According to the New York Post, cities and counties in Utah, Louisiana, and Maine have already taken this step. The New York Times points out that Los Angeles and Chicago have done the same, and the whole state of California is considering it.

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Let's step back and recall how we got here. When tobacco fighters began to outlaw smoking in elevators, buses, restaurants, bars, and public buildings, their stated rationale was to protect nonsmokers trapped inside. Then the crusade moved on to apartment buildings, extending the same theory: You can't smoke in your apartment, because the smoke seeps under your door into hallways and other people's apartments.

Now this rationale has moved outdoors. Way outdoors. David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner who led the anti-smoking fight in the 1990s, says New York City is doing the right thing, because "the majority of the population today doesn't want to be breathing in tobacco smoke, whether indoors or outdoors."

That's true. I hate tobacco smoke. I don't want to breathe it anywhere. I don't want the tiniest particle of it to touch my lungs, even if my nose doesn't notice it.

But do I have the right to that standard of purity? If so, doesn't that justify a ban on smoking absolutely anywhere? Forget parks and beaches. If you smoke in your backyard, aren't you violating my airspace? In fact, aren't you violating my airspace by lighting your grill or driving your car down my street? How far does my right to clean air extend?

Studies have proved that secondhand smoke is harmful. But those studies aren't conducted in wide-open spaces. They can't cover the whole atmosphere. They're conducted in enclosed spaces. That's why they justify smoking bans in elevators and restaurants, not in acres and acres of parkland.

New York's health commissioner, Thomas Farley, suggests that parks are defined spaces. Here's his argument, as quoted by the Post:

"We don't think children, parents, when they're standing at soccer games, should have to be breathing in smoke from the person next to them," Farley said after unveiling the city's 10-point plan alongside Mayor Bloomberg. "We don't think our children should have to be watching someone smoke."

Whoa, there. First of all, you don't have to ban smoking on every square inch of park land in order to protect nonsmokers from "the person next to them." You can chalk off spaces where smoking is prohibited. Believe me, I coach kids' soccer games. Last week, some guys who work for the county league showed up to paint new lines on our practice field. If you can paint boundaries for play, you can paint boundaries for smoking. Want to keep smokers 100 yards away from where kids are playing? Draw a line.

But check out Farley's second argument: Kids shouldn't "have to be watching someone smoke." We're no longer talking about breathing even a particle of smoke. We're talking about banning bad habits to prevent cultural contamination.

In that case, can we please ban public lotteries? Because I don't like my kids having to watch people gamble, particularly under the auspices of the state. Gambling is addictive and destructive. I want the tickets out of convenience stores and the results off television.

Why is a huge outdoor smoking ban justified even in the absence of substantiating medical evidence? Because, as one anti-smoking leader tells the Times, "There is no redeeming value in smoking at beaches or parks." That's the bottom line: Any basis for a ban, no matter how slight, is now sufficient, because the value of smoking is zero.

Once we agree on that, the movement to ban smoking, having conquered the outdoors, can move back indoors, this time without any reference to other people's health. Because the value of smoking is zero in your bathroom, too.

Correction, Sept. 16, 2009: This article originally misidentified the initiative as "Take Care New York 1012." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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