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August 14, 2013

Anti-smoking battle moves outdoors; bans on increase

ATLANTA — First it was bars, restaurants and office buildings. Now the front lines of the “No Smoking” battle have moved outdoors.

City parks, public beaches, college campuses and other outdoor venues across the country are putting up signs telling smokers they can’t light up. Outdoor smoking bans have nearly doubled in the last five years, with the tally now at nearly 2,600 and more are in the works.

But some experts question the main rationale for the bans, saying there’s not good medical evidence that cigarette smoke outdoors can harm the health of children and other passers-by.

Whether it is a long-term health issue for a lot of people “is still up in the air,” said Neil Klepeis, a Stanford University researcher whose work is cited by advocates of outdoor bans.

Ronald Bayer, a Columbia University professor, put it in even starker terms.

“The evidence of a risk to people in open-air settings is flimsy,” he said.

There are hundreds of studies linking indoor secondhand smoke to health problems like heart disease. That research has bolstered city laws and workplace rules that now impose smoking bans in nearly half of the nation’s bars, restaurants and workplaces.

In contrast, there’s been little study of the potential dangers of whiffing secondhand smoke while in the open air. But that hasn’t stopped outdoor bans from taking off in the last five years. The rules can apply to playgrounds, zoos, beaches and ball fields, as well as outdoor dining patios, bus stops and building doorways.

“Secondhand smoke is harmful. It’s particularly harmful to children,” said Councilwoman Mary Cheh of the District of Columbia, one of more than 90 U.S. municipalities or counties considering an outdoor smoking law.

But is it really dangerous outdoors?

Federal health officials say yes. Studies have clearly established that even a brief exposure indoors to cigarette smoke can cause blood to become sticky and more prone to clotting. How long that lasts after just one dose isn’t clear, officials say. The best-known studies so far have measured only up to about a day afterward.

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