Smokers already have a tough time in New York City. They are prohibited from lighting up (or even vaping) in bars, restaurants, and several other enclosed spaces. Their cigarettes are some of the most highly taxed in the nation, running $13 a pack. And if you're one of the many New Yorkers who looks to live outside the law by purchasing untaxed cigarettes on the thriving black market, there's a chance the cops might murder your vendor.
So far, the city's smokers have taken these indignities in stride. A newly introduced ordinance would prevent them from doing even that, by banning smoking while walking.
Yesterday Councilmember Peter Koo introduced legislation that would ban anyone from smoking in motion on the city's 12,750 miles of public sidewalks. Also prohibited: puffing in parking lots and on pedestrian paths overseen by the Parks Department.
Non-stationary smokers would receive a $50 fine.
"You can smoke. You can walk. But don't do both together," Koo tells the local CBS affiliate, describing in vivid detail the harm transient tobacco users visited on both him and the children. "I'm walking behind someone who's smoking, and I'm suffering for five or 10 minutes. I see mothers with their strollers walking behind people who smoke, and they're exposing the baby to secondhand smoke."
Presumably, smokers standing in one place are producing just as much supposedly dangerous second-hand smoke as those lighting up on their way to and from their destination. Indeed, stationary smokers would appear to be the greater environmental hazard, concentrating their deadly fumes in one small area as opposed to spreading them across several city blocks.
And without a crystal-clear legal definition of walking, readily apparent to both citizens and police, Koo's bill will lend itself to haphazard enforcement and rank abuse.
Would lighting up, and then moving from one side of the pavement to the other—perhaps to avoid getting your smoke in someone else's face—constitute a violation? How about those quieting anxious jitters by smoking and pacing back and forth? Will they too be hit with a $50 fine?
This fuzzy definition makes it nearly impossible for law-abiding smokers to stay on the right side of the law. It also gives police officers endless opportunities to use the law as a pretext to stop and question someone.
Koo himself appears to have given remarkably little thought to how the specifics of his policy might actually play out, saying only that "if there's a law around, it's up to the police to enforce it. It should be discretionary."
Giving police broad authority to crack down on an incidental behavior, while at the same time just assuming they will use this authority in a wise, rational, and retrained manner, is sloppy legislating indeed.