Bloomberg’s paternalistic outdoor smoking ban goes too far

The headline’s not quite right — New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg went too far when he implemented the city’s comprehensive indoor workplace smoking ban back in 2003. But that ban at least had some plausible connection to the health of workers in the hospitality industry, despite its clear infringement of rights to property, association, and freedom of contract. Now the country’s most paternalist mayor reportedly supports extending that ban outdoors to the city’s parks and beaches:

Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-smoking crusade could be coming to a city park or public beach near you, a plan plenty of people say crosses the line, reports CBS 2′s Dave Carlin.

CBS 2 has learned that Mayor Bloomberg is looking at a possible smoking ban for all city parks and public beaches. […]

The new measure would widen the current smoking ban – in bars, subways, buildings, playgrounds and other public places – to include some 29,000 acres of park land and 14 miles of beaches.

Whenever one considers secondhand smoke exposure, it’s important to remember that the dose makes the poison. Deeply inhaling tobacco smoke directly from a cigarette into one’s lungs is clearly dangerous. Whiffs of smoke in an open air park, while potentially annoying, aren’t going to give anyone lung cancer or heart disease.

It’s no wonder that some non-smoking residents support the ban. They have nothing to lose and they’ve been hit with fear-mongering propaganda for years, such as Action on Smoking and Health’s dire warning that “If you can smell it, it could be killing you,”or even worse, uncritical reports about “thirdhand smoke,” the residue left behind on room surfaces when tobacco is lit. So firmly has the toxicity of tobacco smoke been in implanted in the public’s mind that activists no longer feel the need to demonstrate that it causes harm; the mere ability to detect its traces with fancy lab equipment is enough to raise a panic.

When the outdoor ban was first proposed, Cheryl Healton of the American Legacy Foundation praised it on the grounds that “There is no redeeming value in smoking at beaches or parks.” Free people should not have to justify the “redeeming value” of their actions so long as they do not violate the rights of others. While there may be reasons for banning smoking in select areas, the city’s parks and beaches are vast enough to accommodate smokers and non-smokers alike. (Of course, if New York hadn’t banned smoking in private bars there might be fewer people smoking in the public parks.)

For people to live peacefully  together in dense urban areas, they must  tolerate the diverse behaviors of their fellow citizens, even the behaviors with no redeeming value. Smoking, which obviously has some redeeming value for the many people who indulge in it, should be no exception.

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