Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Anti-Smoking Groups' Scientific Arguments in Support of NYC's Proposed Outdoor Smoking Ban Don't Hold Water

A point-counterpoint set of columns regarding the proposed New York City ban on smoking in all parks appeared yesterday in USA Today. The paper's editorial argues that such bans go too far and cross the line by going beyond the scientific evidence of the significant harms of secondhand smoke. The opposing view, written by Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR), argues that the proposed smoking ban is needed to protect the health of nonsmokers.

The editorial supports smoking bans in workplaces and other confined places but suggests that to ban smoking in every park in New York City is far beyond what is necessary to protect nonsmokers from the hazards of secondhand smoke exposure.

It argues that: "To be harmed by secondhand smoke outdoors, you have to stand right next to the smoker and in the path of his smoke. Prolonged exposure in a park is improbable. New York's mayor, reformed smoker Michael Bloomberg, who has been laudably aggressive with anti-smoking campaigns, was right to respond hesitantly when his city health commissioner proposed this one. ... the gradual banning of smoking in confined spaces — airplanes, workplaces and the like — made sense. ... Government-imposed outdoor bans, though, are another matter. Rather than protecting innocent victims from harm, they amount to an intolerant majority infringing the personal freedom of an unpopular minority that is harming only itself. Just as people should be allowed to smoke in their own homes (unless they live in condos or apartments that have declared themselves smoke-free), they should also be allowed to smoke outdoors, where smoke is quickly dissipated and enforcement is problematic."

In its opposing view, ANR argues that outdoor exposure to secondhand smoke is a substantial public health threat and that to protect nonsmokers from even brief exposure to secondhand smoke, a ban on all outdoor smoking in public places, such as parks, is appropriate.

ANR argues that: "Smoke-free outdoor spaces are quickly becoming the national norm, and we have the science and public support to continue moving in this direction. Fueling interest in outdoor laws is the growing body of science on the negative health effects of secondhand smoke exposure outdoors and the environmental effects of cigarettes and toxic cigarette butts. In 2006, the California Air Resources Board classified secondhand smoke as a Toxic Air Contaminant and called it "an air pollutant which may cause or contribute to an increase in deaths or in serious illness." Additional research demonstrates that individuals with compromised cardiovascular systems might be at risk from brief exposures to secondhand smoke, even outside. People spending time outdoors near smokers over multiple hours, such as waitresses or dinner guests, can receive exposure that exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency's limit on fine particulate matter pollution. ... We applaud New York City for working to eliminate toxic contaminants and trash from parks and beaches, and expect to see more cities follow suit."

The Rest of the Story

As a researcher who has studied exposure to, and health consequences of, secondhand smoke for the past 24 years, I simply do not believe that the scientific evidence justifies New York City's proposed ban on smoking in all public parks as necessary to protect nonsmokers from any substantial health hazards. I find ANR's scientific argument to be non-compelling and I'm afraid by advancing such an exaggerated and unsupported argument, they are risking losing credibility on the issue of workplace smoking bans, where I believe the evidence is sufficient to warrant protection of nonsmokers.

In the long run, the extension of the smoke-free agenda to the wide open outdoors is going to harm our efforts to protect people from secondhand smoke in the places where they really need protection - workplaces, bars, casinos, and restaurants. Remember that while about half of states provide such protections for workers, half do not. The priority in tobacco control should be on extending protections from the severe hazards of secondhand smoke in workplaces to all workers throughout the country, focusing on the half of the states which do not afford workers such protections. The priority should not be on extending protections from secondhand smoke to the most remote areas within Central Park. In fact, the emphasis on the latter completely undermines the goal of achieving the former.

ANR's argument falls flat because while there is evidence that outdoor levels of secondhand smoke can be substantial in confined spaces, such as outdoor workplaces or arenas, there is no evidence that tobacco smoke exposure poses a hazard to nonsmokers in the wide open outdoors, unless one is standing directly next to the smoker. The levels of tobacco smoke diminish exponentially as you move away from the smoker. So if you are in Central Park, there is plenty of space to go to avoid any substantial exposure to secondhand smoke, even if you are someone who is particularly susceptible to smoke.

You are simply not going to convince me that in order to protect people's health, smoking needs to be banned within all areas of Central Park, even in remote areas. There may be other reasons why the City wants to ban smoking in Central Park, but you can't convince me that such a ban is necessary in order to protect citizens from substantial tobacco smoke exposure and health effects.

If ANR and other anti-smoking groups were honest, and they just admitted the real reasons they are supporting such laws, I would have a lot more respect for them. Trying to hide their true justification for these laws under the guise that these draconian restrictions are necessary to protect the health of nonsmokers just doesn't fly.

Why not simply admit that they believe that no nonsmoker should ever have to breathe in even a whiff of secondhand smoke, regardless of whether it would have any substantial health effects or not? Why not admit that they believe that clearing the air of smoke will make society healthier by helping to reduce smoking rates, since these draconian bans will likely cause many smokers to quit? Why not admit that they believe these laws are justified because preventing children from seeing smokers in public will help lower smoking initiation rates?

Why hide behind the scientifically unsupportable contention that banning smoking in every remote area of Central Park is absolutely necessary in order to prevent severe health effects that would otherwise occur?

Frankly, this really undermines the tobacco control movement's arguments for smoking bans in confined places - such as workplaces - where tobacco smoke truly does represent a substantial health hazard and where it actually is causing devastating health effects for many workers.

By focusing on the most remote areas of Central Park, I believe ANR is actually taking the focus off of, and undermining efforts to protect workers in the 25 or more states which do not presently protect all workers from very high levels of exposure to secondhand smoke.

Worse, ANR is undermining the scientific credibility of the tobacco control movement by making an unsupportable scientific claim. Better to just admit the truth and not hide behind an invalid and absurd scientific justification.

USA Today has now made ANR - and the rest of the anti-smoking movement, by association - look like a bunch of fanatics who are basing their policies not on science, but on unbridled zeal. This means that our opponents were right all along and that we are not supporting smoking bans because we have solid scientific evidence that these policies are necessary to protect the lives of nonsmokers. We're playing right into the opposition's hands. The question is: why?

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