Undoubtedly much to the chagrin of the former mayor, more New Yorkers are smoking these days. According to the latest data from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, adult smoking rates in New York City have risen to 16 percent, from an all-time low of 14 percent in 2010.
That this is happening in a city where nanny-statist extraordinaire Michael Bloomberg spent a dozen years doing everything he could to limit cigarettes should serve as a wakeup call for those still committed to doubling down on the current antismoking campaign.
New York banned smoking in nearly all indoor public places more than a decade ago. The city spends lavishly on advertising to encourage quitting and imposes so many taxes that a pack of name-brand cigarettes can cost $15. More recently, the city banned most e-cigarette use in public and raised the age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21. And yet, all of these efforts correlate with increases in an activity that poses dozens of serious health risks.
It is becoming clear that the kinds of tactics that once were hugely successful in reducing smoking rates—which are half the levels seen when the first stern health warnings were issued in the 1960s—have reached the point of diminishing, if not negative, returns. Smoking rates nationally have been stuck at around 20 percent for roughly a decade, even as overbearing Bloomberg-style tactics have spread.
Rather than resort to ever-more coercive measures, public health -officials should consider the news out of New York as an impetus to explore new approaches. For people who just can’t quit—likely a sizable portion of those who persist in smoking—it’s time to consider a more tolerant and even welcoming approach to encourage switching to lower-risk products like chewing tobacco, nicotine lozenges, snus, and e-cigarettes. It’s important to note that none of these things are perfectly safe and all are quite addictive. But an impressive amount of data strongly suggests they are as much as 98 percent less dangerous than tobacco cigarettes. Allowing and, in some settings, even encouraging their use could do a tremendous amount of good.