Over the last few years, you may have noticed more "no smoking" signs have cropped up on parks and beaches. They're part of a larger trend banning smoking at outside, public areas. In fact, smoking has been banned in 843 parks and more than 150 beaches in the last two decades.

In California, where a law was passed banning smoking in bars and restaurants without a vote, they are now trying to can smoking on outdoor patios of bars and restaurants. And in cars. And in private homes.

Public health officials have long argued the bans are meant to eliminate dangers from secondhand, or "sidestream smoke," reduce the environmental impact of cigarette butts and to keep young, impressionable children from picking up on bad habits. Makes sense, right?

There's just one problem: the actual evidence couldn't get you convicted of jaywalking.

"I discovered the evidence was really weak," Ronald Bayer, a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, told PBS about his paper in Health Affairs. "The evidence of harm to non-smokers on the beach or in a park from someone smoking is virtually non-existent." 

Instead, knowing there was no evidence basis for bans, social authoritarian who didn't want to look like social authoritarians argued for public health reasons but were really engaging in social engineering.

"They make it more difficult for smokers to smoke, and contribute in an important way to the 'denormalization' of smoking."

And the lack of an evidence-basis looks worse when it comes to other efforts.

“Public health officials don’t want to be tarred with the brush of the ‘nanny state’ (or) ’Big Brother.’ I actually think these bans on parks and beaches represent, I think, a kind of paternalism, a kind of nanny state. The question is, is the nanny state so wrong? If we could eliminate 400,000 deaths a year over time because fewer and fewer people smoke, would that be so bad? And I think not. But I think public health officials are afraid to make the case that directly, so they get caught in making a case that, I think, is easily picked apart.”

So everyone has been trained to agree second-hand smoking is bad by two decades of misinformation, what about illicit drugs?

" I noticed when my students of public health talked about illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine or marijuana, they adopted a libertarian point of view -- emphasizing how the government has no business intruding on people's choices and all those negative consequences. But when I raised the issue of tobacco, they all became in a way, authoritarian."

And then there is the 'how can we trust officials when we know the evidence is lacking? question:

PBS NEWSHOUR: In your conclusion, you state, "Public health must, in the end, rely on public trust." Was there a risk that public health officials took justifying these bans the way they did?

"Well, I actually do think there's a risk. My concern is that when public health officials make claims that can't be backed by the evidence, they run the risk of people saying, "We can't trust you." I understand it is probably more effective to say the reason we're banning smoking in parks and beaches is that we're protecting you from sidestream smoke, or your kids from looking at something very bad for them or that we're protecting wildlife. That might be more effective way in the short run of getting these statutes or regulations passed and put into place."

So just 'fess up about your cultural agenda, social authoritarians. If people don't like that you want to micromanage their behavior, they can just move somewhere else. 


Citation: Ronald Bayer and Kathleen E. Bachynski, 'Banning Smoking In Parks And On Beaches: Science, Policy, And The Politics Of Denormalization', Health Aff July 2013 vol. 32 no. 7 1291-1298 doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2012.1022

The Real Reason Behind Public Smoking Bans By Sarah Clune PBS