Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NYC Health Commissioner: "We Don't Think Children Should Have to Watch Someone Smoking"

According to an article at NY1, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley explained that the reason behind the city's proposal to ban smoking in all parks is not to protect people from secondhand smoke, but to prevent children from even having to see a smoker in public.

The Health Commissioner was quoted as stating: "We don't think children should have to watch someone smoking."

The New York Times also reported that the Health Commissioner described the smoking ban in public parks as being intended not to protect nonsmokers, but to get smokers to quit by making it harder for them to light up in public.

According to the article in the Times, "Dr. Farley said the ban—which officials said may require the approval of the City Council, but could possibly be done through administrative rule-making by the city's Department of Parks and Recreation—was part of a broader strategy to further curb smoking rates, which have fallen in recent years."

The Rest of the Story

Make no bones about it. Anti-smoking advocates are now promoting smoking bans for the purpose not of protecting nonsmokers from the hazards of secondhand smoke, but of protecting nonsmokers from even having to see smokers in public. And they readily admit it.

For many of my 24 years in tobacco control, the clearly stated goal of the smoke-free movement was to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke by promoting bans on smoking in the workplace and public places. The goal was never to prevent people from seeing smokers. We were talking about a serious health hazard - high levels of direct exposure to a hazardous mix of chemicals in tobacco smoke from other people.

Now, the movement has apparently deteriorated to the point where it is promoting smoking bans simply to prevent people from having to see others smoking.

From an anti-smoking perspective, this is troublesome because I think it will really hurt the cause. It is going to make it more difficult to promote legitimate smoking bans - those which protect workers from substantial exposure to secondhand smoke - in the states which currently do not have workplace or restaurant/bar smoking bans. If we are viewed (now rightly so) as anti-smoking zealots who merely don't want to have to see people smoking in public, then our arguments for intervening in the workplace to eliminate secondhand smoke are greatly undermined.

From a broader public health perspective, this is troublesome because it sets a tremendously bad precedent to ban unhealthy behaviors in public simply because we don't want children to see those behaviors. What's next? Are we going to prohibit people from eating french fries in public because it sets a bad example for kids? Are we going to prohibit the sale of those delicious New York City pretzels because children are seeing the consumption of an unhealthy amount of salt in one sitting? Are we going to prohibit obese people from entering public parks because it sets a bad example?

What the justification being provided for this law does is define smoking as an immoral, rather than simply unhealthy behavior. We generally do not ban unhealthy behaviors in public to protect people from seeing them. The justification for banning certain types of public behavior is either that the behavior harms others or puts them at risk or the behavior violates the public morals. It seems to me that smoking in a wide-open city park does neither. But by justifying banning smoking by arguing that children will see people smoking, city officials are essentially defining smoking as being a violation of the public morals.

I do find it dangerous to set such a precedent, because it is only a small step in logic to use the same reasoning to justify banning obese people from entering public parks. If the justification for not allowing smoking in public is that it sets a bad example for children, then the same reasoning would also support banning obese people from public parks, or also banning a host of other behaviors, from eating Nathan's fries to salted pretzels to high-calorie, colored sugar water (i.e., Coke and Pepsi) in public. I don't understand the singling out of smoking.

What saddens me the most is the loss of the science-base to the tobacco control movement. Not only is the rigor of our science going down the tubes, as I have demonstrated during the past 2 days with these very seriously flawed smoking ban/heart attack studies, but now the science-based justification for our promoted policies is also going down the tubes. Ultimately, I feel this is going to hurt even our legitimate pursuits, such as trying to protect workers from the very real hazards of high levels of secondhand smoke exposure.

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