The place: Times Square, New York City.
The time: High Noon, the present.
The scene: Two men slowly walk towards each other. A few passersby anticipate a showdown and seek nearby cover.
The players: The Villain and The Hero.
The Villain, clad in basic black from head to toe, advances from the left. The Hero, dressed in stylish off-white, approaches from the right.
As they get close — at the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street — the villain strikes a match and lights the unfiltered Camel dangling from his lips, then rudely exhales the smoke into the Hero’s face.
The Hero coughs, but stands his ground. He places his hand on a holstered gun on his left hip. He withdraws it, points it at The Villain, who doesn’t flinch, then places his forefinger on the trigger and squeezes. As a steady stream of water gushes forth, it douses the man in black’s cigarette with a low hiss and drips from his face.
The Hero holsters the water gun, raises his hands in triumph, smiles and says, “Now we can all breathe a little easier.”
The Villain, looking disgusted, pulls the wet Camel from his mouth and tosses it to the ground.
“This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” he snarls. “I’m goin’ to Jersey. Give my regards to Broadway.”
A black limousine appears and stops. A chauffeur steps out and opens the rear door. Before The Villain steps into the vehicle, a police officer hands him a summons for littering. The Villain gets in, slams the door and the limo heads south towards the Lincoln Tunnel.
A small crowd, safely watching from a short distance away, explodes with cheers and applause, and gathers around to shake The Hero’s hand and slap him on the back.
Cut to narrator:
If only reducing the number of smokers was that clear-cut — or civil.
It’s about a decade since the City Council enacted the first regulations to ban smoking in bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and other indoor public places. That legislation has protected thousands of New Yorkers from involuntary, second-hand exposure to a host of deadly chemicals that comprise cigarette smoke.
By the way, those who think the city is suppressing their rights, no one ever complained when spitting in public or littering were banned. Yet, non-smokers find smoking to also be vile, offensive — and equally unhealthy.
Though some New Yorkers may assume Mike Bloomberg was the first mayor to limit smoking, the ban was actually introduced during Ed Koch’s administration. Bloomberg, nevertheless, orchestrated several wider prohibitions. In 2003, it was extended to include bars and other public places. Then, two years later, legislation prohibited smoking in most restaurants and offices. It was next extended to include hospital grounds and, most recently, the ban covered parks, pools, beaches and other outdoor areas.
The most recent estimate maintains that more than 85 percent of New Yorkers do not smoke and almost half a million have quit since the campaign to reduce smoking began under Bloomberg. Smoking, according to Health Department figures, is the leading cause of premature preventable death in NYC, killing more than 7,000 New Yorkers annually.
I’m among that majority who strongly support any efforts to limit smoking. After all, why would anyone oppose prolonging their own life?
Do smokers pay no attention to, or just not care, about the Surgeon General’s dire warning on cigarette packages: Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy?
And what about the ugly graphic images in anti-smoking campaigns? Do smokers really not get the message?
Actually, smokers and tobacco manufacturers gained a minor victory last month when the Second U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a 2010 ruling that New York City could not try to scare smokers to the dangers of tobacco by forcing retailers to display shocking images. Two years ago, when Manhattan Federal Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff ruled against the city Health Department, he pointed out “even merchants of morbidity are entitled to the full protection of the law,” despite data that one-third of smokers die of tobacco-related diseases and that, in New York, more people die annually from smoking than from AIDS, homicide and suicide combined.
After the Circuit Court ruling, a Health Department statement noted that “…tobacco remains the city’s number one killer and we remain committed to providing smokers with life-saving information and resources to overcome their addiction.”
Nonetheless, anti-smoking efforts continue and smokers’ rights advocates continue to contest them.
When it comes to smoking, I’ll never be objective. I’ve seen lives cut short or slowed down — including my father’s — because of tobacco. Not only does second-hand smoke irritate my susceptible breathing passages, but I find the lingering odor of cigarettes to be repulsive. Always have, always will.
I’ve never smoked cigarettes. If there’s any benefit from being a lifelong asthmatic, that’s it. When I was diagnosed, I also learned I was allergic to tobacco, so it has always been taboo for me. At the time no one suggested that other smokers — namely my parents — aggravated my condition. Heck, in those days, the effects of tobacco use were deep, dark secrets kept from the public by Big Tobacco corporations.
After decades of deceit and deception, when it was revealed that cigarette tobacco contains nicotine, a highly-addictive drug, among other noxious ingredients, it didn’t seem to matter much to most smokers, who kept puffing away. The major reason nicotine is not regulated and/or completely banned is probably because tobacco is the cash crop for an industry that makes sizeable political contributions.
In politics, money changes everything.
For those who may think the anti-tobacco trend impedes their pursuit of happiness, do yourself a favor and visit your doctor. Have an X-ray of your lungs taken. Frame it. Then keep that hideous image hanging within sight of your favorite smoking chair.
Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose agency spent $54 million for a three-month, national anti-smoking ad campaign, which recently ended, noted that most people don’t realize smoking has consequences beyond health disorders. He said that healthcare costs are $2,000 more each year for smokers — about 20 percent of U.S. adults — than for non-smokers, and smoking remains the leading cause of preventable deaths.
As New York City expanded anti-smoking rules over the last 10 years to include such outdoor public areas as parks, beaches, pedestrian plazas and pools, non-smokers have been able to breathe a little easier.
Though New York smokers may assume they’re being unfairly targeted, nearly 500 cities and towns across the country — including San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Albuquerque — also prohibit smoking in most public places.
Until smokers light up at home — even when a spouse complains, or in the company of their grandchildren — to whom secondhand fumes are likely to adversely affect, only then will I concede that they can smoke wherever they want.
But until that day — or hell freezes over, whichever comes first — smoking where others’ lungs may be impacted, must be forbidden.
Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.
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