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An Open Letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Marvin R. Shanken, Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010

You would think in the 18 years since Cigar Aficionado was launched that we would have heard everything there was to hear about the crusade to ban tobacco use and cigar smoking. So, by now we shouldn't be surprised when ideology, or personal crusades, trump science.

We have never disputed the claims about the potential harm in cigarette smoking because people smoke those in excessive quantities every day and they inhale. We have questioned painting cigar smoking with the same brush; the average cigar smoker smokes one a day, at most, and doesn't inhale. We also took exception to the Environmental Tobacco Smoke issue, or the harm of secondhand smoke, partly because the original science used to demonize indoor smoking was flawed. We have also questioned the notion that it was all right for government to intrude on the rights of business owners, and force them to comply with no-smoking laws. And, we have challenged outright bans on all indoor smoking, eliminating even the possibility of a smoking area in a restaurant or a bar, and regardless of whether or not a business has installed proper and adequate ventilation to keep the air clean.

Now, we have come across a new label applied to something that really boggles the mind: Outdoor Tobacco Smoke, or OTS. This concept is being used as a bludgeon by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to impose a no-smoking ban on all parks and outdoor city-controlled spaces. That's right. All 1,700 city parks and 14 miles of city beaches.

The study being used by New York City to justify this ban is from research conducted by Stanford University in 2007. We found a critique of that research on a blog about fighting anti-smoking tyranny. In essence, the study is quoted this way: there is a "lack of empirical data on outdoor tobacco smoke levels," which makes it difficult to assess the risk of OTS exposure. The study concluded, however, that "it is possible for OTS to present a nuisance or a hazard under certain conditions of wind and smoker proximity." Based on that rather vague assertion, the New York City council is considering imposing that far-reaching ban.

The "certain conditions" cited in the study are these: a nonsmoker would have to be within 18 inches and downwind of a smoker to experience exposure that might approach levels of smoke found in a closed, indoor space. Upwind? Zero exposure to secondhand smoke. And, six and a half feet downwind? Almost zero. So, unless you're inclined to get within kissing distance of a smoker and stay downwind for an extended period, your exposure to secondhand smoke is almost zero. Can you imagine staying 18 inches away from a stranger in a New York City park?

The proposed law is just unreasonable. Some of the parks the mayor is talking about are staging areas for city buses, spewing exhaust fumes across the park. You can't move away from them. But by simply getting up and walking two paces away from a smoker, your exposure to secondhand smoke is almost nothing. Is that too much to ask of nonsmokers? Is it right to remove one of the last places in some cities where a person can sit down and smoke?

If any city council or government is going to ban smoking based on this study, call it for what it is: a creeping Prohibition of tobacco. It's not about the science, or the health risk to anyone. It's about a crusade to ban tobacco. And, each little step like this one brings the crusaders closer their goal. But this bill tramples on the individual rights our founding fathers fought for when they conceived this great nation of America.

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