Monday, May 16, 2011

Health Groups Acknowledge that Park Smoking Ban is Not About Critical Health Protection for Nonsmokers

In response to my op-ed in the New York Times suggesting that banning smoking in every outdoor park in New York City might be going too far, two health groups - the American Cancer Society and the NYC Department of Health - published letters to the editor defending this policy.

The American Cancer Society acknowledges that in a large park, such as Central Park, nonsmokers can easily avoid exposure to secondhand smoke, but asks the question: "is it really fair...?" The ACS argument is that a nonsmoker should never have to be exposed to even a whiff of secondhand smoke because "there is no safe level of exposure" and that government should pass laws to ensure that this is the case.

The Department of Health makes two arguments. First, the ban is not just about health, but about "enjoyment" of parks. It argues simply that "smoking doesn't belong there."

Second, the Department of Health argues that the ban is necessary to prevent children from having to see people smoke: "Children in parks or on beaches should be learning how to play baseball, bike or swim, not how to smoke."

The Rest of the Story

The first problem with both the ACS and the Commissioner of Health's arguments is that by their reasoning, smoking should be banned everywhere outdoors in the city.

If government must ensure that citizens never have to endure even a single whiff of secondhand smoke because there is "no safe level of exposure," then why are the ACS and Health Commissioner not calling for a complete ban on outdoor smoking? Why should nonsmokers have to be exposed to people smoking on sidewalks, for example? In fact, it is a heck of a lot easier to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke in a wide-open park than it is to avoid exposure to smoke on a sidewalk.

If the ACS and Health Department's arguments held any teeth, then it would be justified to simply ban smoking everywhere outdoors - and especially in the most crowded places, like sidewalks.

The Health Commissioner also argues that smoking "doesn't belong" in parks. Well, is he saying that smoking does belong on every sidewalk in New York City? Is there a proper place to be exposed to secondhand smoke, and an improper place to experience such exposure? It's not a matter of smoking "belonging" or not belonging, it's a question of whether there is a substantial public health hazard.

Finally, the Department of Health argues that the smoking ban is justified because children should not have to see smokers in public. Well if that's the case, then how is it justified to allow children to have to see smokers in any other outdoor place? Once again, if you want to protect children from having to see a smoker, then you pretty much have to ban smoking everywhere. In fact, if a smoking ban in an outdoor park is justified on the basis of protecting children from having to see a smoker, then so is a complete ban on any outdoor smoking, period.

The second problem with these arguments is that they argue for banning smoking based on concerns unrelated to critical protection of nonsmokers from substantial health hazards attributable to secondhand smoke exposure. One thing that is clear from these letters is that for the anti-smoking groups, this truly isn't about health protection from significant hazards of secondhand smoke, it is about never having to even see a smoker in public.

The Health Commissioner and ACS director, for example, defend the need for the smoking ban on the basis that it is necessary for people to be able to "enjoy" themselves outdoors. That this is about "enjoyment" and not "health" is a problem, I think. The same justification for banning smoking would also apply to banning the use of perfume. To be sure, that can also affect someone's "enjoyment" of being on a park bench.

Even more troublesome is the stated justification of protecting children from having to ever see a smoker. If that justifies smoking bans, then why not simply ban smoking everywhere outdoors? And why not ban smoking indoors when there is a child present?

These letters demonstrate the main point in my column: that our arguments in support of these widespread outdoor smoking bans risk our undermining the entire basis for smoke-free policies that are truly needed to protect people's lives: bans in places where people simply can't escape substantial exposure.

By framing smoking bans in terms of "enjoyment," rather than "health," I believe we are hurting our overall cause of protecting the public from the severe hazards of chronic exposure to secondhand smoke in the workplace.

By framing smoking bans in terms of "smoking not belonging" in a particular place, we are undermining our case for banning smoking in places like bars and restaurants, where our opponents defend smoking by arguing that it does belong.

And by framing smoking bans in terms of preventing children from having to ever see a smoker, we turn smoking from a health issue into a moral concern, which seriously undermines our case for workplace smoking bans.

Based on the stated arguments in support of the NYC park smoking ban, I have to say that the movement to protect nonsmokers from substantial health threats from secondhand smoke exposure is not a "symbolic victory," it is not a victory at all. In fact, it may just be moving us in the wrong direction, not the right one.

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