The war on smoking hits a new low

New York's ban on lighting up in public places highlights the law's moral double-standard

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 23, 2011 8:20PM (EDT)

Cutting smoking reduces heart attacks (Mark Fairey)
Cutting smoking reduces heart attacks (Mark Fairey)

For now, you can still buy a pack of cigarettes. You don't even have to lock yourself in a windowless room if you want to enjoy them -- yet. On Monday, a sweeping ban on public smoking in New York City went into effect, a restriction that could penalize buttheads as much as $50 for lighting up in the city's parks, beaches and pedestrian plazas. (Restaurants and bars have been smoke-free since 2002.) That's a hefty price tag for a sweet kick of cancer stick.

As our consumption of cigarettes continues to decline, our tolerance for them has likewise been plummeting. And as a result, we're now moving more deeply into a place where what you can legally consume and what you can acceptably consume has changed, and it's creating social and logistical challenges.

Though you can't walk down the street enjoying an alcoholic beverage in our fair city (you win that one, New Orleans), you can freely do al fresco shots of tequila at any liquor-licensed bistro. You can likewise sit on a park bench and swallow those Vicodin you've been hoarding since you threw your back out last year, or walk up to a computer terminal in any of our libraries and watch all the porn your eyes and imperviousness of public scorn can handle.

Smoking is different. It stinks up your clothes and is terrible for your health, even in its secondhand form. It involves everyone within breathing distance in the smoker's habit. But does that mean everyone should get a vote? And where's the line between a public health concern and flat-out moralizing?

In just a few short decades, smoking has gone from being part of the aromatic character of your local bar to something heavily restricted in an increasing variety of public places. And as a result, it's become a dirty little secret. Bad boys like Colin Farrell and Charlie Sheen and naughty girls like Kate Moss can still get away with a Camel dangling from their lips, but for many, from Salma Hayek to Joe from the food co-op, smoking has evolved into one of the last great taboos. It's no longer something lingeringly enjoyed over an espresso, but rather something you're "caught" indulging in by the paparazzi -- or that mom from your playground. You can brag about how hung over you are this morning and get laughing approval. But if you light up even a fake cigarette on a Broadway stage, expect the reaction a friend heard when he brought his family to "Billy Elliott" recently -- a chorus of disapproving preemptive cough cough coughs. How many other unhealthy habits are routinely met with such an acceptable level of entitled disdain?

A community can set its own guidelines on public behavior, but how are these stricter smoking laws supposed to work, exactly? Does King of New York for Life Mike Bloomberg expect pedestrians strolling through midtown to collectively stub out their Kools when they get to Times Square?  Should they no longer cut through any of the small patches of green space on their walking routes, lest they befoul the air there? I live here and I'm not even sure what constitutes an official "pedestrian plaza." And there is something plainly schizo about offering products anyone of legal age can purchase on any city street corner, and then cracking down hard on consumers actually using them.

As a nonsmoker with a few near and dear asthmatics in her life, I'm all for clean air. I just don't feel that not smoking puts me on higher moral plane, or that everyone I encounter on the street has to live by the same health code I do. Sure, cigarette smoking is bothersome, and if it's your home or theater or restaurant or subway car, you get to make the rules. But we're still talking about the consumption of a legal substance, and we can't just send all the smokers to Smoky Island and put a big bubble around the whole thing. Life is full of annoyances and disruptions and things we find unsavory and stinky. And I should break it to you all now: There's no behavior ban in the world that's a guarantee against strangers acting in a way you don't approve of. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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