Where will the government outlaw smoking next? To find out, read its polls.
Bloomberg doesn’t need to ban smoking in apartments. He can eradicate it simply by leveraging the ire of nonsmokers. Already, the city’s tobacco survey shows that 33 percent of New Yorkers who live in multi-family buildings are covered by smoke-free policies instituted by the buildings’ owners or operators. And this number is growing. At last week’s press conference, the mayor pointed out, “The trend is nobody builds a new hotel and lets you smoke.” By forcing landlords and co-op boards to address the issue with incoming residents, Bloomberg intends to help nonsmokers banish tobacco from the premises. “You’ll have a lot of people in big buildings insisting that the rules change,” he told reporters.
So, if apartments are off the list of potential targets for the next smoking ban, what’s on the list? Look at the tobacco survey. According to the city’s most recent report, between Wave 1 and Wave 2, the percentage of respondents who favored “prohibiting smoking in front of the entrances to buildings” increased from 55 to 61 percent. The percentage who favored “prohibiting smoking on sidewalks” increased from 39 to 47 percent.
City officials say they have no plans to ban smoking on sidewalks. They point out, quite reasonably, that the mere fact that they’re polling the question doesn’t, by itself, mean they’re going to try it. But they wouldn’t be polling the question if they weren’t thinking about it. A true nonstarter, such as an apartment smoking ban, doesn’t get included in the survey. A sidewalk smoking ban does.
Sidewalks, unlike apartments, are public. Legally, this gives the government much stronger grounds for prohibiting smoking on sidewalks. It also makes a ban on sidewalk smoking a lot easier to enforce. In fact, it requires the government to step in, since no co-op or condo association can dictate smoking policy on public property. Nor is a sidewalk smoking ban difficult to imagine. The city already prohibits smoking at sidewalk cafes, in pedestrian plazas, and on sidewalks adjacent to hospitals. Extending the smoke-free zone to other sidewalks would be just a difference of degree. Great Neck, a village less than a mile from Queens, enacted a law against sidewalk smoking last year. You can be sure the Bloomberg administration is watching.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on that tobacco survey. By last year, in Wave 2 of the poll, support for a ban on smoking in front of building entrances had risen above 60 percent. Support for a ban on sidewalk smoking had climbed almost to 50 percent. The city finished its Wave 3 polling last month but hasn’t released the data, except on apartment smoking. If the numbers keep going up, it’s hard to believe that a mayor who shut down smoking at parks, beaches, and outdoor cafes will draw the line at sidewalks.
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Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.