IN RECENT years, the City of Boston has taken laudable steps to curb exposure to secondhand smoke. Smoking is now outlawed in outdoor workplaces, public housing projects, and tot lots. But it’s harder to defend a broad new effort to ban smoking in all city parks.
The proposal, which would impose a $250 fine on smokers, has been passed by the City Council and endorsed by Mayor Menino. The Boston Parks Commission will likely take it up at the end of the month, following a trend among cities nationwide — including New York, which banned smoking in parks and beaches in 2011. The impetus stems from evidence about the dangers of secondhand smoke: A 2006 Surgeon General’s report outlined those health risks, and a Stanford University report, from the following year, showed that standing just downwind from a burning cigarette outdoors can produce exposure levels as high as those in a smoky bar.
These were good justifications for Boston’s two-year-old ban on smoking in tot lots, where children are likely to congregate densely. But the parks, at large, are open to a broader population. They’re adjacent to sidewalks, where smoking is legal. They’re exposed to fumes from buses, cars, and motorcycles. The 2007 Stanford study found that chemical concentrations of cigarette smoke dissipate quickly, in outside air, once cigarettes are extinguished, and that the health risks drop dramatically with distance.
In addition, the ban would be nearly impossible to enforce, or enforce fairly. Boston’s park rangers largely patrol the Emerald Necklace. City police officers are unlikely to respond, in due time, to complaints of a lit cigarette. If fines are levied, they’re likely to fall disproportionately on the low-income or homeless residents who smoke in greater numbers. They’d also fall on people who are trying to kick the habit, since the ban also covers tobacco-free vapors from e-cigarettes.
Some city officials acknowledge as much but still hope the ban will send a strong message and encourage self-enforcement. But a human solution, involving education and common courtesy, doesn’t require a legal stick. Smokers need to be aware of the dangers of secondhand smoke, and sensitive to people downwind of them. Public health campaigns and the old-fashioned evil eye could be useful weapons in the cause. Indeed, in the years since the Stanford study was released, smoking rates in Boston have declined — partly because of successful cessation programs from the city and state. It’s great to encourage safe behavior. It’s not always effective to legislate it.