New Yorkers' Cigarette Breaks May Go Up In Smoke

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Helene Martich smokes in a Times Square pedestrian island in New York City.

Helene Martich smokes in a Times Square pedestrian island in New York City, something that would be illegal under Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed ban on smoking in city parks, beaches, and parts of Times Square. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images

They have already been chased out of bars, offices and restaurants. Now, the city wants to ban smokers from outdoor public spaces like parks and beaches. The ban would affect some of the most crowded pedestrian spaces in the world, like Times Square.

First they came for the smokers in bars, and Jason Riley simply moved outside.

"I didn't stop drinking," Riley said. "If that was the object, to get me to stop drinking, it didn't work."

Then the New York City Health Department banned trans fat in foods.

"I'm fine with it," Riley said.

The city then went after excess salt, required calorie counts in the menus.

Riley said: "I don't think it makes a difference."

But now New York City is coming for Riley. He is standing in the middle of Times Square, taking a smoke break. Under the proposed law to ban outdoor smoking, he would be a criminal.

"How do you enforce it?" he asks. "You going to give a ticket? Should we hire 500 more police officers with a good sense of smelll? Maybe the K-9 units would take care of it."

Cigarettes Worse Than Car Exhaust Fumes

It's easy to mock the proposed law in a place like Times Square where not too long ago a billboard for Camel cigarettes blew giant smoke rings into the air. The square is filled with car exhaust, food cart vapors and other strange smells. What harm could a few extra cigarettes do?

"Well, there's increasing evidence that you can be exposed to smoke outdoors in a way that's really harmful to your health," says New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.

He says studies show that if you are within 3 feet of someone smoking outdoors, your exposure to secondhand smoke can be the same as when you are indoors. And though places like Times Square are choked with exhaust-spewing traffic, cigarettes are still worse.

"You know, we've done measurements and the levels of particulates, those are the particles that get in your lungs, are much higher from secondhand smoke than they are from car exhaust," Farley says. "So you can get much higher levels from sitting next to a smoker than being at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel."

Goal: To Stop Smoking

And so the New York Health Department has been pushing the city for the past year to take action. The proposed ban on smoking would affect about 1,700 parks, plazas and beaches. It still needs to pass the City Council, but the number of angry smokers ready to fight is dwindling in New York. The goal, at least among some in city government, is to keep this up until everyone in New York has quit.

"I would like people to stop smoking," says Gail Brewer, a New York City Council member and sponsor of the anti-smoking bill. "I'm not going to say otherwise."

While heading down to City Hall Park to talk with smokers about the proposed regulations, Brewer shared a secret: The police will not be actively hunting down smoking scofflaws.

"I'm not interested in fines or getting anyone arrested," she said.

She just wants the law on the books for sort of moral support.

"When you are sitting on the beach with your family and somebody is smoking, you can't grab the kids and all the stuff and move," she says. "You can say very nicely it's against the law to smoke on the beach and hopefully they will understand and I'm sure they will."

Meanwhile, Edmund Kasubinski is spotted smoking. The college student says he isn't allowed to smoke in his apartment.

"I love to sit in the park and chain smoke," he says. "Maybe I'll quit. I guess I'm going to smoke in the park while I can."

If the law passes, the last public haven for smokers in New York will be the city sidewalks. And at least if they have to circle the block, they'll be getting some exercise.

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