Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Live 19 Months Longer

Mayoral Bill Bans Smoking

In City Parks and Beaches

Mayor Bloomberg this afternoon signed a local law that would prohibit smoking in city parks and beaches.

The bill was approved by the City Council on February 2, twenty days ago. The Council vote was 36 in favor and 12 opposed. 3 members were excused. In the municipal legislature, that is considered a close vote on a controversial issue. On most questions put before the Council, fewer than a handful of members differ from the majority, which usually represents the views of the Speaker (Christine Quinn). Many bills are approved without dissent, any problems either having been resolved in committee or vanishing in thin air.

None of the naysayers on the Council appeared at the public hearing and signing ceremony, nor did any tobacco lobbyists or libertarians, although all were welcome to attend. Speaker Quinn was not present either, although she often attends hearings on legislation. She deserves credit for its passage, although she may not want to dwell on it. Nonetheless, some people will live longer because of this legislation.

Under the City Charter, a public hearing is required before the Mayor signs or vetoes a bill. As a result of the opponents' failure to show up, the hearing was more a pep rally for the bill than an argument over its merits. The mayor spoke first, followed by the two relevant commissioners, Dr. Thomas M. Farley of Health and Mental Health, and Adrian Benepe of Parks. Then came the lead sponsor of the bill, Councilmember Gale Brewer, followed by the chairs of the Health Committee, Maria del Carmen Arroyo, and the Parks Committee, Melissa Mark-Viverito.

The Council vote was as follows, for those of you who know some of them as individuals:

Yes: Quinn, Carmen Arroyo, Brewer, Cabrera, Chin, Comrie, Crowley, Dickens, Dromm, Eugene, Ferreras, Foster, Garodnick, Gennaro, Gentile, Gonzalez, Greenfield, James, Koo, Koppell, Koslowitz, Lappin, Levin, Mark-Viverito, Nelson, Recchia, Reyna, Rodriguez, Rose, Seabrook, Vacca, Vallone, Van Bramer, Vann, Weprin, Wills

No: Dilan, Fidler, Halloran, Ignizio, Jackson, Lander, Mealy, Mendez, Oddo, Sanders, Ulrich, Williams

Excused: Barron, Palma, Rivera

Four of the twelve No votes came from the five Republicans on the Council, with Peter Koo of Flushing the sole Republican supporter of the bill.

This blogger attended the hearing in support of the bill, but that was hardly necessary. The first local law to restrict smoking was adopted by the Council in 1988, although it had been introduced by a number of sponsors, including the Councilmember-at-large from Manhattan, more than five years earlier. It was written to complement the Clean Indoor Air Act which Assemblyman Pete Grannis carried for many years in the State Legislature until it passed in 1989. After thirty-two years in the Assembly, Grannis was appointed State Commissioner of Environmental Conservation, serving in the Spitzer and Paterson terms. He was recently appointed First Deputy Comptroller under Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

The principal argument for the bill is that it will prolong people's lives if they are not exposed to the toxic brew of second-hand smoke. That is smoke which has already passed through someone else’s respiratory tract and is being recycled just for you. It is now considered scientific fact that the tar and nicotine in smoke is poisonous, and especially damaging to children, asthmatics or people with weak lungs. Both Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Farley said smoking was the largest preventable cause of death in the City of New York, and presumably our city is not alone.

When this witness pointed out that smoking killed many more people than gunshot wounds (now simply listed as GSW by local hospitals), but deaths from smoking were quiet and often not reported on or attributed to tobacco, Mayor Bloomberg added that smoking deaths (often from lung cancer) were usually far more painful and prolonged than deaths from gunfire.

Commissioner Benepe spoke of park employees' unpleasant and repetitive labors of picking cigarette butts out of beach sand, where the smokers have hidden them for aesthetic reasons. A child (or even an adult) should be able to run his fingers through sand without having to deal with burnt tobacco, paper and ashes.

As to woodlands, how many acres of forest land out west have been destroyed by fires started by carelessly discarded cigarettes landing in piles of leaves and eventually setting them ablaze? Those fires kill people as well as animals.

Popular parks like Central Park contain rows of benches, and people sit in relative proximity. The closer people are to each other, the greater the likelihood of their involuntarily breathing someone else's second-hand smoke.

The new law will go into effect ninety days from today, which is May 23. Enforcement will be left to the Parks Enforcement Patrol, in addition to posted signs and social pressures, since it is not likely to be considered a police priority. That should not stop cops, at least, from issuing warnings to violators. Fines will start at $50, which is modest compared to the $115 cost of a ticket for double parking in much of Manhattan. The bill is not intended primarily as a revenue raiser, but as an effort at behavior modification.

Another bill dealing with the conduct of park users was the Leichter-Lehner Pooper Scooper Law of 1978, which requires dog owners (or walkers) to clean up after their pets poop in the park. People now carry plastic bags, which they deftly fill with their dogs' waste. Not everyone is compliant, but many people do obey the law, and the problem has been substantially reduced, at least in some neighborhoods.

The Clean Outdoor Air Act, as the Brewer bill might be called, will probably have a salutary effect on public health. The life expectancy of New Yorkers has increased by 19 months during the Bloomberg era, which is noted for public health initiatives (e.g. campaigns against salt, smoking and trans fats). There may be fewer guilty pleasures, but if cleaner air keeps you or a loved one from the ravages of lung cancer or other tobacco-related diseases, it is probably worth it.

DIGRESSION: If what you are looking for is assisted suicide, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was released in 2007 at the age of 78, but the rigid terms of his parole prevent him from treating senior citizens, the disabled, or advocating euthanasia. Kevorkian was allowed to run for Congress in Michigan, which he did in 2008, receiving 2.6% of the vote. Last year, he was portrayed in the HBO film "You Don't Know Jack" by Al Pacino, who won Golden Globe and Emmy awards for his portrayal of the beleaguered physician. When you smoke, you are doing to yourself what Dr. Kevorkian is now forbidden to do. END

In reality, other measures to influence behavior, originally regarded as unenforceable, have had success. The requirement to wear seat belts in cars, helmets when riding motorcycles, the bans on cell-phone use while driving - all encountered skepticism but gradually gained public acceptance with the passage of time, public service announcements and the coming of age of a new generation. Some of these changes are works in progress.

The tired argument - "You can't change human behavior" - was used against laws prohibiting racism and promoting gay rights too. But persistent effort does result in behavioral change, not always and not completely. But if it saves lives and promotes public health and well being, it's worth trying, and to its credit, New York City has become a leader in public health.

Our last Health Commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, is now head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a Federal agency based in Atlanta, GA. Mayor Bloomberg's first Housing Commissioner, Sean Donovan, is now secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. We have probably contributed more Federal officials than any other city except Chicago. Rule 10 - "I wonder why."

No comments:

Post a Comment