When Mayor Nutter banned smoking in public parks this week, he said it was to "protect natural resources." As an extension of the city's Clean Indoor Air Worker Protection Act that has also banned smoking in bars, restaurants, rec centers, pools and playgrounds, it may at first seem like a noble effort to clean up the air for all citizens of the community. But if we take a closer look at Philly's overall air quality (poor as it is), do we really think that banning a few rogue smokers in parks is going to make the kind of impact required to help decrease the number of Philadelphians suffering from diseases like asthma or cancer?
Because it won't. And here's why.
If you get caught smoking in a public park, you may be asked to put out that butt (or e-cigarette) but you won't be fined since smoking in public, at least according to the new order, is not a finable offense.
It's also unclear as to who will police smoking in parks. In bars and restaurants, for example, it's up to the management to quash anyone who dares light up. But since the parks are owned by the city, will city workers be charged with the responsibility? Will there be some kind of a mobile smoke patrol? And how will these elusive park smokers be stopped if there are no fines, like the ones that accompany not wearing a seat belt or not having a license for your dog?
If you think the latest ban is already sounding ridiculous (and next to impossible to police), it gets even more perverse. If you're a smoker unlucky enough to be chased out of the park by the villagers with their proverbial torches, you can still smoke on the periphery. This might mean that while you can't light up near the goat or fountain in Rittenhouse Square, you can stand just outside the fence and puff away as you watch people devour their Rouge burgers across the street. How this will improve air quality is anyone's guess, especially if you've ever noticed the exhaust coughing up from buses, trucks and taxis on all the major arteries around town (and around the parks).
Truth is exhaust contributes to a much bigger carbon footprint than the nicotine addicts desperately clutching their Marlboro Reds in snow, rain, heat and gloom.
Not surprisingly, executive orders like these tend to purposely distract from the much more problematic issues impacting health in Philadelphia, like pollution. It's a lot easier for the mayor to sign an order that shows good faith when it comes to health and wellness (like banning smoking in parks "for the children"), but it's another to enact any laws that might make a real dent in air pollution or decrease the number of children developing asthma in neighborhoods where air quality is at its worst, like North Philly.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children and infants are among the most susceptible to air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead – which can be found in everything from exhaust to cooking steam (yep, all those fancy restaurants along Rittenhouse Row are also to blame).
To drive home the point, The City of Los Angeles proved that diesel exhaust has a very serious impact on health – finding that people who live closest to freeways tend to suffer from poorer respiratory health overall. And according to the "State of Air Report" by the American Lung Association, Philadelphia ranks 10th nationally in ozone levels. Philadelphia is also ranked sixth among the 50 cities that are most difficult to live with asthma in the U.S., according to the Clean Air Council.
Where are Nutter's laws curbing these air pollutants?
A drive down I-95 tells the true story of Philly's air quality as smokestacks pour out a rainbow of noxious gases. The impact of this pollution contributes to everything from diseases of the cardiovascular system to high blood pressure and respiratory problems (similar to that of smoking). And while there's no doubt that smoking is bad for you (I'm a lifelong non-smoker who suffers from asthma and has lost loved ones to cancer after years of smoking), it's certainly not the only offense dirtying up the air. Smoking, while a personal health problem (a catastrophe, even), is arguably less detrimental to the city than industrial and vehicle pollution, which begs the question of whether government should even get involved.
Like soda bans that may shrink the size of extra-large Cokes, but do little to educate people about the impact of too many sugary drinks, banning smoking in public parks – while it may clean up unsightly cigarette butts – will likely have little impact on our overall health. Just ask Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles, cities that also suffer from very poor air quality despite the most rigorous bans on smoking in the country.
These legislative Band-Aids (including Nutter's recent ban on the "vaping," or the use of e-cigarettes in public places) does not cancel out the fact that cigarettes are still not illegal in this city or country. If you're 21 years or older, you can buy a hard or soft pack, filtered or unfiltered, at any corner store in Philly. And until the government wants to take a swing at the nation's powerful tobacco lobby (and risk giving up billions in cigarette taxes that are used to fund everything from health insurance for children to preservation of farmland, according to the PA Department of Revenue) these executive orders are all just smoke and mirrors. It was Nutter himself who wanted to use cigarette taxes to fund public schools that are in desperate need of funding.
Sure, we want to believe that our leaders are working hard for the sake of our health and well being, but really their hands are tied when it comes to making any significant, long-lasting impact on health as long as big business still manufactures products like cigarettes and sodas, which – the last time I checked – was their prerogative to do so.
In the meantime, we, as citizens, get smacked with miniscule and arguably ill-conceived executive orders like these that, while they may seem like progress, really only distract us from the bigger, life-threatening problems, ones that take a lot more than a pen to paper to (pardon the pun) smoke out.