Sat, Sep 19, 2009 - Page 9 News List

No smoking, bud

New York’s mayor wants to outlaw lighting up in public parks, a move that rights groups call an infringement of civil liberties

By Paul Harris  /  THE GUARDIAN , NEW YORK

Once the US was in thrall to the Marlboro Man. The hard-smoking cowboy, staring moodily from his horse at a far-off horizon, symbolized a certain kind of freedom and — not coincidentally — helped sell millions of cigarettes.

But now America’s smokers are groaning — or maybe that should be wheezing — under a flood of new measures designed to make them give up. Or, at the very least, to drive their habits from public view to something done furtively in private.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced plans to try to ban smoking in the city’s public parks, adding to the 2002 ban on smoking in 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 in hundreds of city parks and 25km of beaches.

But the New York move is just the tip of an iceberg of anti-smoking policies spreading across the country in a variety of arenas, ranging from rental cars to the army to people’s homes.

From next month, Avis and Budget will be the first major US car rental companies to ban smokers from puffing away in their vehicles, charging cleaning fees of up to US$250 for those who flout the rules.

Chicago has already taken its ban outside by forbidding smoking on beaches and playgrounds. In California the small city of Belmont, just outside San Francisco, has even banned it in apartment buildings, marking the first real advance of anti-smoking laws into homes.

Perhaps the biggest recent shock has been a study commissioned by the Pentagon that said smoking should be banned in the military. Though few changes are expected soon in the army, the idea of stopping US soldiers lighting up in a combat zone after a firefight triggered a wave of headlines.

Yet it is still New York that is on the frontline of the US anti-smoking wars. The city celebrates its global reputation for hard partying, tolerance of different lifestyles and rabid individualism, yet Bloomberg has successfully made the Big Apple’s smokers one of the few social groups acceptable to ostracize.

On Monday, Bloomberg — a former smoker himself — admitted that when he sees smokers hunkered together outside buildings he gives them “a not particularly nice look” as he walks past.

His comments appeared to be aimed at encouraging other New Yorkers to do likewise.

“Social pressure really does work,” he said.

It certainly seems to have made New York smokers into a fairly subdued bunch as they face yet further constraints.

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 as he clutched a lighted cigarette.

“They have already banned it in so many other places that it won’t make much difference,” the 43-year-old salesman said.

Kelly added that he understood, and even sympathized 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 US$100 billion a year, and this is against a background of rising healthcare costs for the government.

Bloomberg and many others have made it clear that they see smoking as expensive to wider society, not just as a private habit for the individual, and have not shied away from draconian measures that would be hard to impose on other products.

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