A New York City Council public hearing on a proposed smoking ban in city parks evolved into an hours-long, occasionally raucous showdown Thursday afternoon, touching on issues such as civil liberties, public health, big government and litter.
The hearing focused largely on a bill, introduced by Councilwoman Gale Brewer, a Manhattan Democrat, with the support of the Bloomberg administration, that would ban smoking in the public parks, playgrounds, beaches and pedestrian plazas, but also included testimony on a compromise bill, which would lead to designated smoking sections in many parks.
Testimony ranged from people like David Goerlitz, the former “Winston Man” who, in a press conference before the hearing, said smokers are treated like “lepers and second-class citizens,” to Joe Applebaum, a Brooklynite who equated second-hand smoke with rat poison and said smokers have “no consideration for their fellow man.”
Councilmember Peter F. Vallone, Jr., a Queens Democrat, who described himself as an “anti-smoking advocate,” has introduced a bill requiring that land under the jurisdiction of the City Department of Parks and Recreation that is larger than two acres must have a designated smoking area equal to at least a fifth the size of the property footprint.
“Indoor smoking sections never worked well,” Mr. Vallone said. “It’s like having a urinating section in a pool,” he added to laughter. But outside, he went on, health concerns are not the same.
Mr. Vallone’s plan was shot down as “impractical” by the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, and parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, both of whom are staunch supporters of the all-out smoking ban in city parks.
“It’s simply not true” that smoke dissipates in the air, Dr. Farley said, underscoring the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke but also noting that litter eradication would be a “side benefit” of the ban.
Dr. Farley and other proponents, including the Coalition for a Smoke-Free City, an advocacy group, and organizations like the American Cancer Society of New York and New Jersey, also said smoking in parks sets a poor example for youth.
Which is why Mr. Vallone’s compromise, while acceptable to some opponents of the full ban like Mr. Goerlitz, the one-time Winston Man, appeared to gain little traction at the hearing.
“I think it would be impractical and undesirable to try to cordon off separate locations for people to smoke in parks,” Mr. Benepe said, noting that permitting smoking on the edges of parks – as in Ms. Brewer’s legislation – is likely the most effective.
Opponents had a champion in City Councilmember Robert Jackson, a Manhattan Democrat who, in a series of heated exchanges, accused the city of being “too restrictive.”
Similarly, Councilmember Daniel Halloran, a Queens Republican, voiced his concerns that any outdoor smoking ban would lead down a “slippery slope” toward an overbearing government.
“Are we going to be back here in five years talking about a ban on smoking in households that have children in them?” he asked. “What’s the line in the sand?”
And with that, Dr. Farley’s most direct answer, along with chuckles from the crowd, came when he congratulated the councilman for “not being a smoker.”