New York's outdoor smoking ban: Will the world follow?

Woman smoking

New York is introducing an outdoor smoking ban. But could the UK and other countries follow suit, asks Tom de Castella.

It is a city heralded for attracting incomers from around the world, but New York has just become less hospitable to one group - smokers.

Under measures approved by local authorities, swathes of outdoor public places including beaches, municipal parks and even Times Square have become tobacco-free.

And with smoking legislations, as with so much else, where New York leads, the rest of the world can find itself following.

After the city banned smoking in restaurants, bars and clubs in 2003 - itself following Los Angeles, which introduced similar curbs a decade earlier - it helped drive a global trend.

France, India, Ireland and Italy were among the nations which introduced bans after New York. Scotland prohibited smoking in enclosed public spaces in 2006 and the rest of the UK followed the year after.

So it is not surprising that the latest development in New York is attracting global interest.

Smoker As a result of the ban, New Yorkers could face fines if they light up outdoors

The city's latest anti-smoking measures cover public golf courses and sports grounds as well as plazas like Herald Square.

Smoking will be allowed on pavements outside parks, and car parks in public parks. One area the ban does not cover is "median strips" - known as the central reservation in the UK - the sliver of land in the middle of a large road.

City authorities say they hope the new law will be enforced by New Yorkers themselves. But if someone refuses to stop, the public is advised to inform park wardens, and should someone refuse to stop smoking they could be fined.

The New York ban itself comes after Spain outlawed smoking near hospitals or in school playgrounds from January 2011. But whether other countries follow suit largely depends, of course, on whether the move proves effective.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office has cited studies suggesting that sitting three feet away from a smoker outdoors can expose people to the same passive smoking risk as would occur indoors.

Not all those who oppose smoking believe the ban is justified, however.


Many New Yorkers remain unaware of the new ban but among those most affected - smokers - there is a great deal of anger.

They say the science behind the mayor's passive smoking fears is false and the ban unenforceable. A public flouting of the law is planned at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn on Saturday, when smokers will gather for a group puff.

One invoked the civil rights movement when she described it to me as "our Rosa Parks moment".

In a country which is very sensitive to any sign of government intrusion in their lives, there are some non-smokers who also believe this represents a step too far.

Earlier in the year, the New York Times newspaper, which supported the initial law, said its extension takes "the mayor's nannying too far".

Michael Siegel, professor of community health sciences at Boston University, wrote in the New York Times that the ban was "pointless" from a public health perspective and could, in fact, increase the risk of passive smoking by creating "smoke-filled areas" near park entrances.

Whichever way the debate in New York is resolved, it will be watched closely abroad. Prof John Britton, chair of the Royal College of Physicians Tobacco Advisory Group, says the very existence of the ban could have an impact on countries like the UK.

He says the risks of second-hand smoke outdoors are "quite small unless you're right next to the smoker".

However, Prof Britton believes that seeing such a system in operation would convince those who might otherwise argue that such legislation would be unworkable.

"They did it when smoking on the London Underground was banned [in the 1980s]," he says. "Then they did it with the smoking ban in July 2007. But once it comes in, not only do people accept it, they say 'Why didn't we do it before?'"

Indeed, smoking bans are coming into effect in countries where observers would not have easily imagined citizens giving up their cigarettes.

China - home to one-third of the world's smokers - outlawed smoking in bars, restaurants and buses from 1 May 2011 and Russia plans to implement similar legislation from 2015.

This July will be the fourth anniversary of the ban on smoking in public places having reached all parts of the UK.

In the year following its introduction, more than two billion fewer cigarettes were smoked and 400,000 people quit, according to researchers at University College London.

Around the world

  • Australia - Smoking banned in airports, workplaces, government offices, health clinics
  • India - Ban on smoking in public places introduced in October 2008. Direct and indirect advertising of tobacco is also forbidden
  • Russia - Plans to outlaw advertising and promotion of cigarettes in 2011 and smoking in enclosed spaces by 2015
  • Spain - Already had tough anti-smoking restrictions, but in 2011 these were extended to open areas near hospitals, schools and children's playgrounds
  • Syria - In 2010, became the first Arab country state to ban smoking in public places including restaurants, cinemas, theatres and on public transport. The restrictions apply to the nargile, or hubble-bubble pipe

As a result, the UK smoking lobby is watching developments across the Atlantic with trepidation.

Simon Clark, director of Forest, which campaigns against smoking bans, believes the New York initiative is "ludicrous" and that there is no evidence that anyone is at risk as a result of someone else smoking in the open air.

Some political leaders in the British Isles have already begun looking at tightening the law further.

In March 2011, the public health department in Jersey said it was considering whether to ban smoking in all motor vehicles on the island.

Martin Dockrell, director of research and policy at the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), acknowledges that there is no clear evidence of a significant harm to health from second-hand outdoor tobacco smoke.

But he says there are compelling reasons for banning smoking in some outdoor areas, such as children's play parks, as a means of shifting long-term attitudes.

And he argues that if such a ban is put into place, it will not be due to the influence of New York - but because the tide of UK public opinion has hardened against smoking.

"It already has happened in the UK," he says. "Glasgow has smoke-free parks. In the north-west of England there are a number of parks that have gone smoke-free.

"We'll see more of this incrementally as more and more communities become non-smoking."

Smokers and non-smokers alike will make up their own minds in the months ahead.

What remains to be seen is not just whether the new ban can make it in New York, but whether it can make it anywhere.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 539.

    I'm still angry about not being able to smoke in pubs. It just means that I and my friends drink at home.

    But if anyone tells me I can't smoke outside either, I will tell them exactly where they can stick it!

    There is a far greater risk of getting cancer from the benzene in unleaded petrol than there is of passing by someone in the street who is smoking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    As a publican, and smoker, I support these measures. I supported the smoking ban, which forced lazy pubs and clubs to become far more innovative and not rely on a small heavy smoking heavy drinking section of the population. Smoking is on the decrease, and it does not stand any more that people should have a 'right' to smoke in public places if they are in the minority.

  • rate this

    Comment number 479.

    people that complain about smoking outdoors should join us smokers when we are forced outside at -18 on a winters evening so they can enjoy their 'smoke free environment'

  • rate this

    Comment number 440.

    There is practically zero evidence of significant health risks due to outdoor second hand smoke. There are far greater risks associated with fumes from cars. I find it amusing when people claim that when they are walking to work in Central London their main concern is passive smoking rather than car fumes. To ban in all outdoor areas must surely be considered an infringement of civil liberties!

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    Frankly, I'd love to see this. I have had more than enough of being forced to stand in the rain because there's a smoker in the bus shelter and I can't go in for fear of an asthma attack that might kill me - since cigarette smoke is a major trigger for my attacks. I shouldn't have to catch a cold to avoid the smoke.


Comments 5 of 15



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