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Outdoor Smoking Bans: Impossible to Enforce, or Inevitable?

Declaring public space smoke-free is becoming exponentially more common. Enforcing it is not.

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For 48 percent of the U.S. population [PDF], and in 30 of the country's 50 largest cities, lighting up in restaurants, bars, and offices is not only banned, it's a fading memory, as distant as typewriters and rotary phones.

It has not been the same story on the next frontier of smoking bans, those that seek to stop people from lighting up outdoors. Over a thousand U.S. cities and counties (and several states) have some type of smoke-free law indoors [PDF], and hundreds more have laws regulating smoking in public parks [PDF]. But amid the endless variety — no two jurisdictions, it seems, have quite the same laws — only a handful of places have banned smoking outright in outdoor public space.

The exception is at American universities, where a trial run for comprehensive outdoor smoking bans is already several years old. Over 800 college campuses [PDF], some with populations the size of small towns, now offer a model of what a smoke-free city might look like, and a consensus is emerging. Declaring public space smoke-free is becoming exponentially more common. Enforcing it is not.

Enforcement would be hard enough on largely self-contained campuses, such as the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where a campus smoking ban went into effect in July 2011. Students receive warnings or reprimands if complaints are made. Offenders are not issued tickets. A September article on AnnArbor.com painted the ban as a largely symbolic act, with smokers still a common sight around campus. "Nobody really cares," a student told the publication.

Miami University in Ohio has been smoke-free since 2011, but with a similar "soft" enforcement policy that has left smoke-free advocates disappointed. "Every time I walk on campus, I see multiple people smoking," undergraduate Andrew Bowman wrote in The Miami Student last year. "Students are the main offenders, but employees smoke on campus too."

But the thinking among university administrators is that enforcement is more trouble than it's worth, galvanizing opposition, alienating the people the policy targets, and diverting resources from campus police. Instead, they have embraced the "soft" approach -- social pressure, signage and resources rather than tickets and fines.

"It's definitely the norm," says Luis Manzo, director of Mental Health and Wellness Services at the City University of New York, which went tobacco-free in September (chewing tobacco is also banned). "We don't want to demonize those who do smoke or use tobacco." He compares the enforcement logic to that of New York City's pooper-scooper law: few fines, but an effective self-enforcement policy.

Urban campuses like CUNY or George Washington University in D.C., both of which include blocks of public streets and sidewalks, face additional challenges. CUNY voted to go tobacco-free in January, 2011; GW last month.

"Obviously, we can't police city streets," Manzo says. For CUNY's urban campuses, the goal has been modest: to keep smokers away from entrances. It seems to be working. Administrative staff have been given palm cards to hand out to smokers, explaining the policy.

The GW policy is scheduled to take effect in August 2013, and in the interim, the administration will have to decide how it will be enforced. With a gentle reprimand or a fine? By peer pressure or campus police?

District law gives GW the ability to regulate smoking within 25 feet of its buildings, which could effectively create a smoke-free zone not just on the quads but in most of the school's Foggy Bottom neighborhood. On the other hand, if the university focuses only on non-street spaces, the smoke-free initiative would be patchy, missing many campus thoroughfares.

A student takes a smoke break in a designated smoking area at the University of Missouri. KOMU News, via Flickr.

"We're trying not to use the word ban," says Julien Guttman, of the GW campus advocacy group Colonials for Clean Air. "We encourage people to talk about a smoke-free campus rather than a ban on smoking." Guttman, like Manzo, emphasized the extent to which a smoke-free campus is as much about education and resources for smokers as about policy and enforcement.

The most thorough research on the subject indicates that enforcement may not even be necessary. Comparing a smoke-free campus at Indiana University at Bloomington with nearby Purdue, a team of researchers found that the policy could "influence students' smoking-related norms and behaviors," according to Professor Dong Chul-Seo, "even without strong enforcement of the policy." The percentage of IU students smoking dropped 3.7 percent over the course of the study, while the rate at Purdue increased slightly.

Another says that a four-year-old tobacco ban not only decreased the percentage of students smoking, it significantly changed people's attitudes towards tobacco on campus. A 2010 report in Cancer Causes and Control found that "perceived rules about smoking" alone could be an effective deterrent.

Cities like New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, which have made some public spaces smoke-free, are grappling with similar issues. When the mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, issued an executive order banning smoking in certain public places in 2007, the City Council called it "unenforceable."

Data via smokefree.org [PDF], as of October 2012.

New York City, which banned smoking in parks and on beaches in May 2011, has wavered on the issue. Mayor Bloomberg initially declared police would not enforce the ban. "The police will not be enforcing this. That's not going to be their job," the Mayor told a caller on his morning radio show. "This is going to be enforced by public pressure." The Parks Department website calls for a policy of citizen enforcement, citing the examples of L.A. and Chicago, which also have smoke-free parks.

And though New York has since issued a handful of tickets, the ticketed -- 14 in July, 18 in August, four in September and five in October, according to data provided by the Parks Department -- represent a miniscule fraction of the city's smokers, and likely a small percentage of violators as well.

Not surprisingly, the city says the ban is working, based on an observational study by the Department of Health that recorded a remarkable two-thirds reduction in smoking in the parks.

Fewer than half of New Yorkers polled last August agreed.

Top image: Pattie Steib / Shutterstock.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.