Lots of people were flat-out incredulous when they heard New York City is banning smoking on beaches and in parks--including the vast expanse of Central Park. Here are a couple answers to some of the questions I heard today:
Q: Seriously. Can New York really ban smoking outside, away from building entrances--even in "windswept" Battery Park (as the NYT put it) or Central Park? I mean, bars and restaurants are one thing, but a park?
A: Yes. We don't have a constitutional right to smoke (or, for that matter, a constitutional right to wear a Green Bay Packers jersey to work after the NFC championship game). Right now, nearly 80 percent of the people in the US live under some type of smoking ban, whether it's in bars, restaurants, workplaces--or on public property. And courts across the country have repeatedly upheld those bans--saying smoking is not a fundamental right and the government has an interest in protecting public health.
So the New York law may sound extreme, but it isn't that unusual---or even as far-reaching as bans in other parts of the country. The county that includes Minneapolis, for example, is planning to ban smoking on any public property--even if smokers are in their own cars.
Q: But how far can cities and states go to ban smoking? What about in your own home?
A: This is where it gets interesting--that's really the next frontier. The City of Belmont, California in 2007 became the first place in the country to ban people from smoking in apartments or condominiums, and other California cities are following that lead. We've also seen public housing authorities across the country move to restrict smoking in government-owned or controlled housing. But this is where anti-smoking activists risk a real backlash, because people think they should be able to do what they want--if it's legal--in the privacy of their homes (shocking, I know). So activists have focused their efforts on persuading the owners and developers of apartments and condos to ban smoking--not government officials.