Smoke Less New Yorkers. No, More. Do It Here. No, There.

Dear New Yorkers: Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em. And then go get more of ’em. Sincerely, Albany.

But don’t smoke ’em in a bar, restaurant or workplace. Just a reminder. Love, New York City.

What about parks and beaches? Not there either. Thanks, NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City.

Hey, these cigarette butts could really come in handy! Your friend, Assemblyman Michael G. DenDekker.

Last week New York State lawmakers voted to raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1.60, for a total tax of $4.35, the highest in the nation. Taxing is a way to discourage an activity, of course. But it’s also a way to raise money, and at the moment New York really needs some. That seeming conflict — profiting from an activity you’re trying to discourage — is just the latest of New York’s mixed messages about tobacco.

Mr. DenDekker, a Queens Democrat, recently proposed another way to profit from New Yorkers’ smoking habits: start recycling the butts, and thereby create new jobs. New York needs them, too.

Meanwhile the Smoke-Free City group, which is financed by the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wants to ban smoking in parks, on beaches and on boardwalks. A Zogby poll last year found that 65 percent of New Yorkers like the idea.

Ordinarily, a statistic like that would be the last thing you hear before a herd of politicians came thundering over to co-opt the issue. But no elected officials have joined the coalition on this one. “If you want to do something that’s injurious to your health,” said Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, perhaps the nation’s most famous antismoking activist, “you have a right to do it.”

The idea here is not to save people from their own bad habits, but to keep them from hurting the rest of us. Secondhand smoke contains more than 250 poisonous substances, of which 11 are Class A carcinogens.

In adults, it has been linked to cardiovascular disease, lung and breast cancer, stroke, asthma and psychiatric illness, among other ailments. In children, it’s even worse. Over all, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that secondhand smoke kills about 50,000 nonsmokers a year.

Laws limiting where people smoke do seem to affect whether they smoke. The health department estimates that 15.8 percent of New Yorkers smoke now, 27 percent fewer than in 2002, when the city stubbed out cigarettes in restaurants, bars and workplaces.

Jonathan Samet, the director of the Institute for Global Health and an expert on the hazards of smoke, made an intriguingpoint: the less cigarette smoke people are exposed to, the more sensitized they become to it. Once upon a time, it was perfectly routine to find yourself enveloped in a gray cloud. Now try lighting up on the subway and see how quickly you get jumped by a gang of angry mothers.

Given all that we know about its dangers, I think smoking is insane, but I can’t say I find it disgusting. I’ve dated smokers, and when I watch old movies, the sight of an artfully dangled cigarette still works on me the way it’s intended to: as a mark of sophistication and decadence, one of the few public acts with no purpose other than pleasure.

Smoking at the beach, though, isn’t decadent: It doesn’t seem to enhance the experience the way I can imagine it enhancing a glass of wine in a candle-lit restaurant. Smokers smoke at the beach for the same reason they smoke anywhere: because they need the nicotine, and a patch can make a mess of a tan line.

No one seems to have any reliable numbers about how many people light up on the city’s sand or in its parks, nor does there appear to be any data about the concentration of nasty airborne particles that results. Presumably it’s lower than what you’d find in a submarine full of nicotine addicts, and the Navy’s new ban on smoking there doesn’t go into effect until the end of the year. The surgeon general says that zero is the only safe level of exposure, but a stiff breeze coming off the water helps dissipate the danger.

So if public health officials have to pick their battles, are beaches and parks the most effective place to crack down on secondhand smoke? The Smoke-Free City people point out that 10 other counties across the state already ban smoking on beaches, and 34 ban smoking in public parks. San Francisco, Seattle and Santa Monica are among the 97 municipalities nationwide that have enacted similar rules.

New York is a special case, however. When people can no longer smoke in their offices, they head outdoors. If they can’t smoke outdoors either, they may be left to the privacy of their own homes. That might work fine in Santa Monica, but in a city where most of us live in little boxes stacked many stories high, it would not be such a bargain.

An essay just published in the New England Journal of Medicine called on the federal government to ban smoking in public housing, where “tobacco smoke can move along air ducts, through cracks in the walls and floors, through elevator shafts, and along plumbing and electrical lines to affect units on other floors.”

So given that smoking is both legal and lethal, that it’s bad for bodies but good for the budget (at least in the short term), where should New Yorkers who do it do it?

Helen Kjellin, a tourist winding up a long visit from Sweden, offered a novel approach. One morning last week, while smoking in Union Square Park, she said she was in favor of banning cigarettes in public areas. Back in Sweden, Ms. Kjellin said, she never smokes in parks or at the beach, certainly not in her own home. She only allows herself the indulgence when she’s away on vacation — and even then, only when she’s outdoors.

“To be honest,” she said, “I don’t like the smell of smoke.”

Nytimes: June 25, 2010

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