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Cigarettes aren’t known for being healthy, smelling lovely, or looking great strewn across public spaces. But should people have the personal liberty to smoke if they aren’t endangering others?

cigarette ban

For Atlanta smokers, the answer is “no.” With more than 400,000 residents, Atlanta is one of the largest Southern cities to ban smoking in public parks. Cigarette use in the South is higher than in the rest of America, but Atlanta is not alone, reports The New York Times. More than 200 cities across the region have banned smoking in bars, restaurants, or workplaces.

And it’s not just the South; New York passed a similar park ban last year (although it was suspended in May 2012) and in 2009 two of America’s largest tobacco growers — North Carolina and Virginia — passed bans on smoking in bars and restaurants.

The point of these bans isn’t to irk would-be smokers (although that’s certainly happened). Instead, bans are meant to beautify the public parks and also promote healthier, happier, smoke-free lifestyles Difference in happiness between smokers, ex-smokers and never smokers: cross-sectional findings from a national household survey. Shahab, L., West, R. Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Center, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, England. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 2012 Feb 1;121(1-2):38-44. But do smoking bans actually make everyone healthier? Those against the ban argue smokers aren’t hurting anyone but themselves; plus public spaces like parks are large enough that smoking shouldn't bother non-smokers. Bans won’t force smokers to quit, and as for litter from cigarette butts? There are litter laws meant to keep public spaces clean, cigarettes or not.

But it turns out there’s more to the ban than meets the eye. One study found smoking bans actually encouraged smokers who already wanted to kick the habit to seek help and quit smoking Workplace smoking ban effects on unhappy smokers. de Chaisemartin, C., Geoffard P.Y., le Faou A.L. Paris School of Economics, France. Health Economics 2011 Sep;20(9):1043-55. Even cigarette butt litter, a major drag on the environment thanks to non-biodegradable or toxic elements in the filters, could decrease Cigarette butts and the case for an environmental policy on hazardous cigarette waste. Novotny, T.E., Lum, K., Smith, E., et al. Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, University of California San Francisco, USA. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2009 May;6(5):1691-705. Researchers in New Zealand suggested the best way to cut trash for smoke-free countries wasn’t better trash laws but a more expansive anti-smoking policies Cigarette butt littering in city streets: a new methodology for studying and results. Patel, V., Thomson, G.W., Wilson, N. Department of Public Health, University of Otago, New Zealand. Tobacco Control 2012 Jul 20.

The trouble with smoking bans is that the effects are usually spread out over a long period of time. Seeing change is difficult when trying to gather snap stats on recent policies, especially when those policies deal with long-term habits such as smoking. But that doesn’t mean some more conclusive studies aren’t coming. One group of researchers from Toronto found that smoking bans helped lower the amount of smoking and second-hand smoke in workplaces and public areas Is there an impact of public smoking bans on self-reported smoking status and exposure to secondhand smoke? Naiman, A.B., Glazier, R.H., Moineddin, R. Primary Care and Population Health, Institute of Clinicial and Evaluative Studies, Canada. BMC Public Health 2011 Mar 3;11:146. Based on a study of 65,000 respondents, the researchers suggest bans could help publicize the health dangers of smoking while providing a legislative way to decrease the prevalence of smokers. Public parks may be for everyone, but it looks like green spaces across America are getting ready to kick some butts.

Are smoking bans government paternalism or a bold step in the right direction? Join the debate in the comments below.

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