On Monday evening, July 20, the Community Board 7 Parks and Environment Committee for the Upper West Side met to discuss an issue that had been brought to their attention: smoking along the edges of parks.
In 2002, in legislation authored by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, called the Smoke-Free Air Act, smoking was banned in all park spaces to allow for cleaner, healthier air for non-smokers in parks. After receiving pushback on the original legislation to ban smoking in all parkland, an amendment allowed smoking along the edges of parks.
Recently, Upper West Side resident Janice Horowitz brought up concerns about the amount of smoking along these park edges.
“The dangers of secondhand smoke are old. It is a given. It’s irrefutable. It’s boring,” said Horowitz, a former health reporter for Time magazine. In a time of COVID, she said, “It’s as simple as this: in order to smoke, the smoker has to, by definition, remove his or her mask.”
Horowitz highlighted a second consequence of the smoking. “Second-hand smoke renders the lungs of the non-smoker more vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections,” she said. “So, you’re more vulnerable to pneumonia. You’re more vulnerable to the flu. If you’re a nonsmoker and exposed to secondhand smoke now, it means you’re more vulnerable to COVID.”
Other committee members and members of the public agreed with Horowitz’s concerns. Ken Chaya said, “I hope everyone is staying healthy, and I’m trying to stay healthy too. Smoking interferes with that.”
“It’s a matter, really, of hours of people just parking themselves on the park, parking themselves on the benches, as a sort of de facto, designated smoking area,” Horowitz said.
Issue of Enforcement
Brewer attended the meeting and talked about her experience proposing the original legislation for the Smoke-Free Air Act.
“Mayor Bloomberg was supportive [of the act], a lot of smokers objected [to] it,” Brewer said. “I hate smoking. The less the better. I would be happy if we could get rid of it.”
“This is the really the time to ban smoking in all public areas,” UWS resident Jan Alexander commented.
One of the concerns was the issue of enforcement. It was not clear to the committee which department the enforcement would fall to — the Department of Parks and Recreation, NYPD or others. A few community members suggested that simply adding more signage around the park would be enough to communicate the message to most people, with a few expected outliers.
The conversation then turned to the topic of marijuana. There was a debate as to where and how to classify marijuana, which is not yet legal in New York, in this legislation. After much back and forth, the committee agreed that the purpose of the proposed smoking ban was not to pass judgment on the substance itself, but to eliminate the actual smoke being emitted and prevent park visitors from removing their masks.
“I don’t think we should be making law based on what some people find offensive – based on what people’s idiosyncrasies are,” committee member Ken Coughlin said.
“Currently as it stands with any substance, when it says, ‘no smoking,’” said Matt Genrich, the District Park Manager, “It’s no smoking of any substance in a park.”
As a resolution, the committee voted twice: once with the language that excluded two paragraphs regarding marijuana and other smoking substances, and once with the paragraphs included. In both votes, the proposal to ban smoking in all park spaces passed unanimously.
CB 7 is scheduled to recommend this proposal to the City Council in September. But Klari Neuwelt, the committee co-chairperson who led the discussion, suggested that perhaps they could recommend it sooner due to the urgency of the COVID-related health risk, and potential future spikes in cases that might result in more closures and delays.
Horowitz said she felt like a resident whose voice had been heard. “Local politics rocks,” she said. “There was so much function as opposed to dysfunction, that for me, it was just a beautiful thing to see Community Board Seven being fair, and judicious, and gracious, and open to it.”
“I hate smoking. The less the better. I would be happy if we could get rid of it.” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer