Smokers: Have Sympathy, Or Call Selfish

Salma Elmendawi/The Observer

Published: October 5, 2010

Have a Heart for Smokers—They Won’t Have Lungs for Very Long

By David Hagmann

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has thrown his support behind an expansion of the New York City smoking ban. Smoking is currently outlawed in restaurants, bars and offices. If the city council votes in favor of the proposal, smoking would also be banned in parks, plazas and on beaches.

The argument for the smoking ban is the same as it has always been: second-hand smoke is dangerous, and non-smokers ought to be protected from unwanted exposure. When the ban affected only indoor smoking, that argument made perfect sense. We cannot stand up in the middle of a meal—much less in the middle of our work—and go somewhere else. Service personnel, like those in other occupations, deserve to be protected from work conditions that threaten their health. Plus, as a non-smoker, I greatly enjoy not having my clothes stink after a night out. The ban has certainly been effective (I have yet to encounter a smoker in a bar or restaurant) and is generally viewed favorably. So, you might wonder: why is it so bad to expand the reach of such a successful measure?

To me, it’s both a matter of fairness and of practicality. If someone wishes to reduce her lifespan by smoking, that’s a choice that doesn’t affect me. Smokers already pay significant taxes levied on each pack of cigarettes. These taxes ought to more than cover their own smoking-related health care expenditures. Thus, we should respect their right to smoke (even if we think it’s a stupid decision). Such liberties must be given consideration in any free society.

However, their freedom stops when it starts to infringe upon ours. Clearly we need some sort of balance between the pleasure for smokers and the health of non-smokers. It’s often impossible to avoid smoke exposure indoors, and even where possible it could impose major inconveniences. The same does not apply to outdoor smoking. A recent study from Cornell University found that second-hand smoke can be harmful outdoors, if one is within three feet of the smoker. If we take, for example, someone who lights up in the middle of Central Park (an activity that would be outlawed), is it really that hard to stay more than three feet away? How about a person sitting on a bench in Herald Square—do we just have to sit down next to him?

Now consider the practicality of the ban, or rather the lack thereof. If you see someone smoking in Central Park, can you reasonably call the police and ask them to issue a ticket? Are the police now expected to patrol beaches to find offenders? If there is no hope that the law can be properly enforced, then it should not be passed in the first place.

The case against the ban is not limited to some subjective notion of fairness. Consider what this means for smokers: the only place in the city that they will still be allowed to smoke is on the sidewalks. Are we better off if smokers end up congregating to smoke there? Not only will we still be exposed to the smoke, but smokers would also disturb the flow of pedestrian traffic.

Other places like the city of Chicago tried to resolve this with their version of the ban: smoking is, in addition to the previously mentioned places, also prohibited within 15 feet of any building entrance and window. The discomfort imposed upon smokers is in no relation to the supposed harm inflicted upon non-smokers: how much smoke does one breathe in while entering a building? Should we really be concerned about it, while breathing in pollutants from traffic that are magnitudes greater? In a next step, maybe the city could also ban smoking within 15 feet of a street light, where people have to wait before they can cross the street—surely, I’m not the only one who would find this absurd.

In a New York Times article, a proponent of the ban was quoted as saying she doesn’t want to have her baby see others smoke and believe that to be acceptable behavior. We can probably imagine other behavior (and store displays) that are not appropriate for toddlers. Surely, this is not a reasonable standard for what ought to be allowed in the public space.


Dear Smokers, Stop Being Selfish. You’re Killing Me, Harshly

By Konstantine Vrazhilov

It is official: Mayor Bloomberg is not out to try and please everyone in his city, but rather to do the right thing for all New Yorkers. In a city where 7,000 people die each year from smoking and thousands more experience adverse health effects from exposure to second-hand smoke, it should come as no surprise that City Hall is stepping in to protect citizens. Already, New York provides nicotine replacement therapy for free, prompting 30,000 residents to get help quitting last year. Such initiatives are a necessity when considering the city’s 15 percent smoking rate.

The vast majority of the student body will probably concede that Fordham’s smoker rate is still higher than the already astronomical city-wide average. A quick demographical inquiry into national smoking rates will yield a better understanding of where New York stands in terms of the smoking problem. The city is neither a part of the top 10 ashtrays in the U.S. (Southern tobacco belt cities dominate) nor one of the top 10 breathable environments (cities in western states dominate thanks to smoking restrictions in California and other states). In fact, we have more than twice as many smokers as the healthiest city (Provo, Utah), yet the biggest ashtray (Huntington, West Virginia) has in turn more than twice the amount of smokers as we do.

Do not overlook the fact, however, that New York houses more than a million smokers in absolute terms—overwhelmingly more than some anonymous West Virginia town that has a higher smoker percentage. Similarly, it is a lot easier to avoid second-hand smoke in a sprawling city out West than in the dense metropolis of NYC. Here you have the pleasure of rubbing up against someone or at least getting a good whiff of their odor on a daily basis (during your commute perhaps). Fordham’s campus is no exception, its ashtray being the dense space between Lowenstein and McMahon. Walking through this area is like walking around town (or growing up) with Euro-trash parents, i.e. the smoke is unavoidable.

Enter (or rather re-enter) Mayor Bloomberg. Our favorite three-term non-partisan mayor is stirring up controversy among the libertarians and Euro-trash of this city. Bloomberg is moving forward with a city ordinance that would ban the 15 percent of the city’s population that currently lights up in public spaces from continuing to do so. Besides a potentially instantaneous drop in approval ratings from 60 percent to 45 percent, I would not be surprised if frenzied smokers burn down the Mayor’s townhouse. They [smokers] allege that such a ban is draconian and amounts to creating a nanny-state which dictates what they can and cannot do. Seriously? Is it also unfair I couldn’t bring my rattlesnake to school? I’m still mad about it, but it’s understandable because it would’ve endangered others. So why can’t smokers understand that second-hand smoke unfairly subjects people to adverse health effects? And with public spaces in New York being so crowded, the gas-chamber effect of being in a room full of smoke is indeed recreated outside by the many bodies blowing out smoke in close proximity to me.

The science and logic is quite sound, but smokers still feel entitled to blow out (why can’t they just blow up or simply go away!). For example, out of 50 Fordham College at Lincoln Center students I asked, 34 indicated some level of disagreement with Bloomberg’s proposal. All except one of those 34 were either smokers themselves or had blood relatives who smoked; only two smokers supported the ban. I feel such an outcome is indicative of selfishness on the part of smokers. Remember, Bloomberg’s job is not to pander to the needs of every interest group. As mayor, he is charged with meeting the public’s interests as a whole, which in this case requires limiting smoking in public areas to protect individuals from the unhealthy carcinogens. The common retort was that “there is no place left to legally smoke except my backyard.” As the New York Post cleverly called it, the law is indeed “another kick in the ash” for smokers. But keep in mind that the legislation also kicks something else’s butt: unhealthy habits that cause cancers.