Why No Smoking in Public Parks Is a Great Thing

Last week an article appeared in the Huffington Post regarding the recent ban of musical performances in eight sections of Central Park. Famous areas, such as the Bethesda Fountain and John Lennon memorial, are now off-limits for street musicians. The announcement from Mayor Bloomberg’s office confused me, given how much he has focused on creating pockets of calm through ‘greening’ initiatives in the five boroughs, from the High Line and Times Square to Brooklyn Bridge Park, part of an ambitious long-term plan to turn most Brooklyn and Queens riverfront into grazing regions for frantic pedestrians. That he would outlaw Central Park’s musical inhabitants is a frustrating move in an otherwise outstanding sequence of public policies.

Reading user’s comments is a great way of witnessing the best and worst of the American mind. Scrolling through the quips jotted down after this particular article, I noticed one woman comparing this law to the smoking ban enacted in bars in April 2003. She admitted herself to be a non-smoker, but thought that enforcing such a ban in bars was a swipe at personal freedom. The timing of her comment was odd, considering that city officials have recently enacted an even more controversial smoking ban in public parks and plazas. It was also an erroneous comparison.  

Both smoking and music bans are public health policies, though the former is specifically treated as such, while legislation against performing music is aesthetic, at least according to Park spokeswoman Vickie Karp. She stated that while some go to the park to hear music, thousands come to leave the city behind. So the issue of decibel levels (what would make this public health) is not being considered. Besides, few people have been known to grow deaf from the booming sounds of the harp or a pair of violins.

Smoking bans, on the other hand, are fully a public health policy, first enacted by Adolf Hitler during the early 1940s. Rather than immediately comparing Nazis with modern Americans, as tea party acolytes are wont to do, consider this: German doctors had connected smoking cigarettes with cancer decades before Americans came around to the idea, predominantly due to marketing campaigns launched by tobacco companies, which were vehemently opposing that a link could be made. Not only do the effects of smoking cigarettes cause cancer in the smoker, leading to increased health insurance expenditures, secondhand smoke has been proven to increase the risk of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, emphysema and other ailments.

At root here is the current schizophrenia plaguing our country under the notion of ‘personal freedom.’ A clear line between this sentiment and ‘public responsibility’ needs to be drawn. The concept of personal freedom has been confusingly intertwined with ‘What I want to happen,’ which has little to do with actual freedom. Perhaps the greatest example of this today is conservative Republicans running on a platform of smaller government, railing against economic bailouts and anything else Obama’s administration has produced, while not-so-quietly passing anti-abortion and anti-voting bills state-by-state. 

Saying that you want less government interference, and then supporting legislation that limits the rights of women and minorities (as the anti-voting rules are aimed), is a dangerous contradiction, especially when too few media outlets help us understand that it is a contradiction. Assigning an imagined god to some of these ideas does not change the fact that this confused mentality divides a nation. Call it for what it is: the freedoms that I’m expressing are the values and ideas that I believe to be true. That’s fine, but it has little to do with being free, which must be negotiated in a public forum. Thus you have ‘smoke-ins’ in which smokers rage against the machine by banding together in public areas to light up, united in the perceived censorship being waged upon their rights.

I’ll gladly admit that I take personal issue with this topic. I’ve worked in and lived around New York City for a dozen years. Seeing hundreds of cigarette butts scattered across sidewalks and streets every day is disgusting. Watching people huffing to get up subway stairs, stopping halfway to light up so that the smoke gets trapped in the stairwell is both sad and unfair. I’m not trying to downplay the effects of addiction—I’ve studied enough neuroscience over the last few months to know how much of a challenge it can be to work through one. Sometimes that comes in the form of you reaching out for a patch or stick of gum. And sometimes it happens because elected officials understand that public health is a serious topic with dire and even deadly consequences, and that there is a line between personal freedom and public responsibility that needs to be drawn.

I’ve never smoked a cigarette. I grew up in a house where both parents quit and always told me to never start. In fact, most everyone I’ve ever met admits it’s a repulsive habit that they wished they could end. Some have. Most continue inhaling, pack after pack, ever fantasizing about that distant day when they will no longer be trapped by the necessity of nicotine. It’s one thing to have a habit that hurts your own body, and quite another to partake in one that damages everyone around you. If we know that the latter is the case, we have to act in the interest of the broadest possible population, not the few who confuse public responsibility with personal freedom. It is those people who like to trumpet the power of democracy without engaging with its struggles. I credit city officials with helping us recognize this struggle so that we can work together on it, making it public for all of us to see.



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