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No escape in New York for under-fire smokers

1,700 parks and 14 miles of beach may become cigarette-free zones

Nothing seems too draconian when it comes to discouraging the populace from puffing on tobacco. Seven years after New York instituted its ban on smoking inside clubs, bars and restaurants – wildly controversial at the time – the folks in charge are now plotting to extinguish every smoker's pleasure in the great outdoors as well.

Buried inside a policy pamphlet unveiled by the city's health commissioner, Thomas Farley, lurks a barely trumpeted provision that threatens to push already browbeaten nicotine fans to the edge of revolution. He wants smoking outlawed in all the city parks and beaches. Thinking of lighting up in Central Park? No sir, go for a jog instead. Need a quick drag after your Coney Island hot dog? You might just be ticketed.

That the city feels emboldened when it comes to cigarette consumption is not surprising. Contrary to many predictions, the 2002 ban introduced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been implemented with little difficulty (yes, you will still find some smoke-filled dives after midnight if you know where to look) and is credited with pushing down the smoking rate in the city from 21.5 per cent of adults to 15.8 per cent today.

How practical it would be to extend the ban to the Great Lawn and the copses of Prospect Park in Brooklyn is another question. Mr Bloomberg, who is running for a third term this year, conceded as much when grilled on the idea by reporters. "It may not be logistically possible to enforce a ban across thousands of acres, but there may be areas within parks where restricting smoking can protect health," he said.

But the notion of an outdoor ban won early support from the City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn, and from health advocates in New York and beyond. No fewer than 1,700 parks and outdoor recreational areas would be affected as well as the city's seven beaches, which cover 14 miles of shoreline. "The issues with secondhand smoke are very real, and most people today don't want to be breathing in tobacco smoke, whether indoors or outdoors," said a former federal food and drug commissioner, David Kessler. "People will think this is going too far, 10 years from now, we'll look back and ask how could it have been otherwise."

Those who would count themselves in the going-too-far camp would include Glenn Kushner, 40, who yesterday paused on his way to work for a quick cigarette and a chat in Madison Square Park with his friend, Decia Lazarian, also a smoker. "This may be pushing the pendulum too far. I think the city has been taking away our freedoms for a long time and I guess people have gotten used to it almost. But what's next?"

Yet Ms Lazarian, 38, a clothing shop manager, has a different angle. "We both need to quit so the more they do to make that happen the better," she said, admitting that the 2002 ban had helped her cut down to two cigarettes a day. "To be honest, they just need to make it illegal altogether." No one is suggesting that. At least not just yet.

Were it to go ahead with an outdoors ban, New York would not be alone. Some municipalities in California have already made it illegal to smoke in parks, playgrounds and beaches, and Chicago has banned cigarettes on all its lakeshore beaches though not yet in all of its parks. California has also been the first state where tenants in some residential buildings have been told to stop smoking in their own homes.