Battle Against Smoking Goes Back Centuries


A 19th-century painting depicting a 1639 smoke-in by citizens of New Amsterdam against a tobacco ban. It is not clear whether the protest, described by Washington Irving in a largely satirical work, ever occurred.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has snuffed out smoking more audaciously than any of his recent predecessors, as the latest figures attest: only 14 percent of New Yorkers now smoke, the city reported Thursday, discouraged in large part by the ever-cresting wave of Bloomberg-driven taxes and bans.

But Mr. Bloomberg is hardly the first New York official to battle tobacco use. Efforts to restrict smoking can be traced back at least as far as an edict in 1639, which happened to coincide with the start of New Amsterdam’s first tobacco plantation.

William Kieft, the Dutch colony’s hapless director general, tried to ban pipe-smoking altogether, the journalist Eric Burns writes in “The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco.”

The episode inspired a chapter in Washington Irving’s fact-and-fiction-mixing 1809 opus “A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker” in which Kieft meets his match in Manhattan’s burghers. The citizens stage a smoke-in at his house to protest the ban, forcing him to compromise and permit short pipes that “would not be in the way of business.” (It is not known whether such a protest occurred, and the short-pipe compromise did not, but attempts to curb the Dutch smoking habit were widespread in the colonies, said Elisabeth Funk, a historian.)

By the early 19th century, cigar-smoking had replaced pipes as a protest target. In 1817, a visitor from abroad wrote that among the sights that struck strangers most was “the custom of smoking segars in the streets (even followed by some of the children).”

In 1839, The Evening Post complained that “the nuisance of smoking in the streets has much increased lately” and the atmosphere in parts of Broadway “is almost as narcotic and sickening with tobacco smoke as the air of the traveler’s room in a High Dutch tavern.”

“No doubt,” the newspaper continued, “many of those persons who indulge in their favorite habit in the public streets, do it thoughtlessly without thinking how offensive it is to others, and would be surprised at hearing that they are guilty of a blackguard practice.”

The New York Times weighed in in 1853, two years after it began publishing, with an editorial asking: “What right has any man to become a perambulating nuisance — a moving smoke-house — a traveling volcano — leaving his trail of nauseous vapor on the air, which his neighbor cannot avoid, but must, perforce, respire?”

Smoking indoors was considered even more offensive. A news article in 1853 reported that a passenger caught smoking on a Sixth Avenue streetcar was ordered by a conductor to stop, “but the ladies and gentlemen who were so unfortunate as to be in the car at the time, found their clothes so thoroughly besmoked that the disagreeable odor of smoke at second hand, remained with them till the following day.”

Later, the antismoking crusade was embraced by temperance leaders, who reasoned that the habit left smokers parched and craving drink, most likely alcohol. In 1907, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in Manhattan began inspecting library books to eliminate smoking heroes and heroines from modern novels.

“In 95 percent of the reading matter published the cigarettes and tobacco are represented as indispensable,” said Mrs. Emile D. Martin, the W.C.T.U.’s New York County superintendent. “In stories in all classes of literature the hero, although he may be an about-to-be-translated saint, Christian, evangelist or philanthropist is surrounded by a halo of ‘white curling wreaths of priceless Havanas.’”

The following year, word that some restaurateurs would allow women customers to smoke prompted Timothy P. Sullivan, known as Little Time, the majority leader of the Board of Aldermen, to introduce legislation that would impose penalties on hotels, restaurants and places of public entertainment that permitted women to smoke.

His bill, which became effective immediately, passed just two weeks later. It was on the books for only two weeks when it was vetoed by the mayor, but not before Katie Mulcahey, 29, was arrested on the Bowery for lighting up. “No man shall dictate to me,” she said, before being jailed because she was too poor to pay the $5 fine.

In vetoing the bill, Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. maintained that the aldermen were not empowered to ban smoking. “While the conduct of individuals or of the owners of private property can be regulated by legislation, to a certain extent, for the protection of the public morals, health or safety,” he said, “I do not believe that this general power, which is technically known as the police power of a government, can be invoked to sustain an ordinance of this kind.”

Others thought the aldermen had not gone far enough. Dr. Charles J. Pease, president of the Non-Smokers’ Protective League, argued for a ban against anyone smoking in a public place where women were present “who ought not be forced to inhale tobacco fumes.” He also pressed for a ban on smoking at park concerts.

A 1909, an editorial in The Times condemned smoking in subway stations, which was subsequently banned by the Board of Health — a ban that the United States Tobacco Journal branded as “obtuse and reactionary paternalism.” The editorial further railed against even extinguished cigars, complaining that “the odor of one partly burned cigar, disagreeable anywhere, is positively nauseating in a subway car.”

In 1911, The Times urged: “Anything that may be done to restrict the general and indiscriminate use of tobacco in public places, hotels, restaurants, railroad cars, will receive the approval of everybody whose approval is worth having.”

A year later, following the Triangle Waist Company fire, the Fire Department distributed 35,000 placards in English, Italian and Yiddish advising that smoking in factory workrooms and department stores was illegal “under such circumstances as renders the act ‘dangerous to human life’ or ‘endangers the safety of a considerable number of persons’ or ‘renders a considerable number of persons insecure in life or in the use of property.’ ”

In 1920, the Fifth Avenue Coach Company limited smoking to only the rear seats on the upper deck of its buses.

A 1988 law passed under the administration of Mayor Edward I. Koch and amended in 1995, prohibited smoking in most restaurants and offices, with some exceptions. A much stricter ban covering bars and other public places was imposed effective 2003 and was extended to hospital grounds in 2009. In May, it was further applied to parks, pools, beaches and other outdoor areas.

As for Governor Kieft, who was known as William the Testy, the smoking ban was far from his only miscalculation. He was fired by the Dutch West India Company after massacring scores of Indians. He drowned in 1647 when his ship sank as he was returning to the Netherlands to defend himself.

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