New York's legal influence on the proposed smoking ban issue
By Charlene Kwan
Mayor Bloomberg's recent move to ban smoking from all restaurants, bars and clubs has catapulted New York City into the center of a nationwide media frenzy.
Stricter legislation is pending in several other large cities such as Boston and Chicago. Though coverage of this issue has increased significantly with New York's entrance into the fight, the struggle for smoke-free air is not a recent legislative trend.
"I'd like to set the record straight," said Jo Ann Landers, head of the Tobacco Control Program at the Boston Public Health Commission. "People are saying Boston is following New York and that's simply not true. We've been working on this for over a year now."
Boston's proposal, formally introduced by Mayor Thomas Menino in September, would place a total ban on smoking in all public areas, much like the ban under consideration in New York. Boston's current laws stipulate that restaurants must have separate areas for smokers, or keep smoking areas at least six feet away from other eating areas.
"It's just time," said Landers. "California took a big stance on this. The [proposed] bill is closing loopholes in that it protects people who don't necessarily have a voice."
Another city currently considering stricter legislation is Chicago. Its current laws only require that non-smoking sections be provided, but two of the city's aldermen have recently proposed similar bills to toughen up on smokers in response to an overwhelming public demand for smoke-free restaurants. Recent polls have shown that 71 percent of Chicago restaurant-goers would like to see a ban on smoking in "public, indoor spaces."
Leo McCord, Coordinator for the Chicago City Council's Committee on Health, thinks he knows why. "There was [an initiative to ban smoking] several years ago, but it just died," he said. "The citizen's taskforce assembled wasn't able to come up with studies on the economic impact, but now there's growing support for it, both from labor unions and health organizations."
Like Landers in Boston, McCord agreed that the actions being taken in Chicago are distinctly separate from those in New York. "We picked [the smoking issue] up ourselves in May or June. We had actually begun the process prior."
Though big cities like Boston and Chicago may not be following New York's lead, that doesn't mean smaller cities aren't benefiting from anti-smoking laws under consideration for their larger neighbors.
Saugus, Massachusetts, a small city with a population of 26,000, recently passed a total ban like the one being proposed in Boston, which is situated approximately 12 miles away. Part of a North Shore Collaborative, Saugus and over a dozen other small municipalities are all pushing for total smoking bans within the next year. Salem, Massachusetts is also part of the collaborative, and has already passed its ban. If the legislation being proposed in Boston is approved, the ban could go into effect in the entire area as early as March of next year.
"Boston and Cambridge are spearheading the movement," said Everett Gasbarro, sanitarian of the Saugus Board of Health. "We're following."
Boston's Landers agrees. "People don't like to feel that this is big government talking, which is why we're doing this community by community," she said.
Not all towns follow larger examples. Louisville, Colorado, a small town with a population of under 20,000, where the mayor lists his home phone number on the town's website, is situated 25 miles from Denver.
Though Boulder passed its ban over six years ago, Louisville only recently tightened its smoking restrictions. Mayor Davidson cites recent legislation in other towns in Boulder County as the factor that made residents take notice. "We had a citizen's taskforce that looked at the issue for a year," Davidson said. "Basically, the citizens wanted to do it, so they did it."
Granted, it's easier to make decisions in such smaller communities, but the developments in both Saugus and Louisville serve as an important indication that the grassroots movements, and the overlying preferences of the communities in question, are always instrumental in passing smoking bans.
Conversely, communities have also overturned smoking bans in the past. "The one I like best is the Hamptons," said Karyn Kimberling, vice president of FORCES, an umbrella smoker's rights advocacy group founded in 1996. "The ban was overturned simply because the rich, famous and powerful Hollywood crowd did not like being thrown outside their favorite restaurants and bars to smoke."
Despite the exclusivity of their smokers being an issue for some smaller cities, the sentiments of the general public will probably prove to be a major factor in the larger cities in question. Unlike New York, sources in both Boston and Chicago say that the legislation being proposed in each of those cities is "highly likely" to pass, mainly due to the public's demand for smoke-free air.
"There really isn't a nationwide push for this," Landers said. "The push is coming locally." The push may work both ways. Mayor Bloomberg's bill will not pass if some grassroots opposition groups have their way. Legislators in other areas who may not be taking the general idea of a smoking ban from New York, are nonetheless keeping their eyes fixed firmly on New York as a barometer of the social climate and attitudes towards smoking.
"Delaware recently passed a new smoke-free work place ordinance," said Danielle Marchione, of the New York chapter of the American Lung Association. "The issue has come up strongly in response to the pending legislation introduced by Mayor Bloomberg."
Critics fear Mayor Bloomberg's proposed legislation could affect far more than the city's estimated 1.3 million smokers simply through the example it would set for other cities. For this reason, organizations lobbying for smoker's rights have been writing letters, signing petitions, holding protests on the steps of City Hall, and appearing on radio and talk shows for their cause.
Many fear the loss of individual rights. "Americans are being treated like children," said Kimberling. "A handful of powerful companies and associations are trying to reshape America. They want everyone to be perfect, where no one smokes, no one is overweight and no one drinks liquor... the major issues that affect our planet and the future of the species are too difficult a task to undertake, so it is much easier to wage a 'war' on individual lifestyle choice."
If Mayor Bloomberg has his way, New York will be the next victory in the war. That makes those aware of civil rights as well as the city's influence nervous.
"It has always been our opinion that New York City, seen as the trend-setter and 'capital of the world,' is the most important place to keep these draconian laws from being enacted," said Audrey Silk, founder of NYC CLASH (Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment). "It will cause a domino effect across the country. They will all look to us and say, 'If New York City can do it, we can do it too.'"
Back to Top