Once America was in thrall to the Marlboro man. The hard-smoking cowboy, staring moodily from his horse at a far-off horizon, became a visual icon that symbolised a certain kind of freedom and - not coincidentally - helped sell millions of cigarettes.
But now America’s smokers are groaning - or should that be wheezing - under a flood of new measures designed to make them give up their habit. Or at the very least driving it from public view and turning it into something furtively done in private.
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced plans to try and ban smoking in the city’s public parks, already adding to a hefty 2002 ban that has chased smoking from it’s offices, restaurants and bars. That would see the Big Apple take on one of the most ambitious urban anti-smoking bans in the world, forbidding its citizens from lighting up on hundreds of city parks and 14 miles of beaches.
But the New York move is actually just the tip of an iceberg of anti-smoking policies that are now sweeping across the whole country spreading from rental cars to the army to people’s homes.
From next month Avis and Budget will be the first major American car rental companies to ban smokers from puffing away in their vehicles, charging cleaning fees of up to $250 for those who flout the rules.
Chicago has already taken its ban outside by forbidding smoking on its beaches and playgrounds. In California the small city of Belmont, just outside San Francisco, has even banned it in its apartment buildings, marking the first real advance of anti-smoking laws into people’s personal homes.
Perhaps the biggest recent shock has been a survey commissioned by the Pentagon which has argued that smoking should be banned in the military. Though few changes are expected soon in the army, the idea of stopping American soldiers from lighting up in a combat zone after a firefight triggered a wave of headlines.
Yet it is still New York that is on the front lines of America’s new anti-smoking wars. The city celebrates itself for its global reputation for hard partying, tolerance of everyone’s lifestyle and rabid individualism, yet Bloomberg has successfully made the Big Apple’s smokers one of the few social groups that it is acceptable to ostracize.
On Monday Bloomberg - a former smoker - himself admitted that he personally gives smokers he sees “a not particularly nice look” as he walks by them hunkered together outside buildings.
His comments appeared to be aimed at encouraging other New Yorkers to do likewise.
“Social pressure really does work,” Bloomberg said. It certainly seems to have made New York smokers into a fairly subdued bunch as they faced yet further limits on their habit.
Hurrying across New York’s Madison Square park - one of the areas where a ban would come into place - Janaria Kelly shrugged off the news even as he clutched a lighted cigarette in his hand.
“They have already banned it in so many other places, that it won’t make much difference,” said the 43-year-old salesman. Kelly added that he understood, and even sympathised with the reasons for the ban. “Smoking is my choice, but I know it is bad for me, so I get why they are doing it,” he said.
That is music to the ears of the anti-smoking movement. Some reports have shown that smoking-related healthcare costs are almost $100bn a year at a time when governments face spiralling healthcare costs.
Bloomberg, and many others, have made it clear that they see smoking as expensive to society as a whole, not just as a private habit for the individual, and thus have not shied away from draconian measures that would be hard to impose on other products.
But smoking rights groups have made no secret of their horror at the latest moves, equating it with a loss of individual freedom being imposed on the public from above.
“The American public is not asking for this. It is coming from government and non-government groups and it is attacking basic individual rights of freedom,” said Maryetta Ables, president of Forces International, a conservative group that campaigns on issues of personal freedom in smoking and eating and other consumer choices.
But Ables admitted that the current climate in the US seemed to indicate that her group was fighting a losing battle at the moment. “There is going to be more of this sort of thing to come,” she said.
That did not seem to bother Paul Collins, 39, another smoker lighting up in Madison Square park as he recovered from the stresses of his morning commute into the city.
“If they do it, they do it,” he said with an air of resignation “The smoking ban in bars was actually good for me. I cut down a bit. So I don’t really mind,” he said. That is not the fighting spirit among smokers that the Marlboro man was meant to encourage. But then the Marlboro man is perhaps not the best smoking symbol anymore. Several of the rugged cowboys used as models in the campaign contracted lung cancer and became anti-smoking campaigners.
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