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It Just Got Easier to Ban Outdoor Smoking

A new mapping technique could help public officials make the case to ban smoking in public areas.
(Photo: bambe1964/Flickr)

(Photo: bambe1964/Flickr)

You’re walking into a restaurant or bar with some friends, when the recently rehabilitated smoker of the group spots someone puffing on a cigarette outside and says, “Go ahead, I’ll meet you in there.”

You know the drill. In a few minutes, the smoker standing outside is going to be less one cigarette and a bit of butane, and your friend will return to the table with a familiar stench, pledging to try quitting again next month.

Just imagine standing on the street and being able to count 116 smokers in your line of sight.

While a significant body of research shows that smoking is a socially cued behavior and second-hand smoke is a health hazard, public smoking bans remain controversial. Opponents say the bans limit their individual freedom, while proponents point to research that shows how visual exposure to smokers can encourage young smokers and make it hard to quit.

Researchers in New Zealand have used new mapping technology to make the incidence of smoking visibility more concrete and observable—and they hope health agencies can use the maps to mobilize public policy action.

The researchers observed smoking throughout downtown Wellington, New Zealand, at multiple times throughout the week to measure the prevalence of smokers and visible smoking in public areas. They specifically focused on bars, cafes, and restaurants with outdoor seating. Then, they used new geographic techniques (typically used for site selection, archeology, or landscape ecology) to extrapolate and model the visibility of smokers on different streets in the downtown area.


Here there be smokers. (Source: BioMed Central)

The results resemble traffic maps, where dark red indicates smoker-congested areas you’d really want to avoid if you were quitting or taking your child for a walk.

The findings themselves weren’t particularly groundbreaking, but the maps do have a visual impact. Just imagine standing on the street and being able to count 116 smokers in your line of sight. (The most smoker-heavy area had an average of 92 visible smokers.)

Among the predictable results: Visible smoking was more prevalent in the evening than at midday, and more people were observed smoking at the end of the week versus midweek. Streets with high levels of retail shops and hospitality areas had high values of visible smokers.

The study is limited in a few ways, researchers admit, since they generalized from just 14 outdoor points to map the entire downtown area, and they were unable to account for visual blockage (other than buildings).

Despite these limitations, the researchers hope the maps can become an important tool for policymakers who want to ban public smoking.

[The maps] provide systematic evidence of visual exposure to smoking at particular places that can otherwise only be conveyed by anecdotal statements or by film/video. These viewshed maps are compelling and can be easily absorbed and interpreted by lay audiences.

In other words, normal people don't go around counting the smokers they can see while walking on the street or through the park. But if researchers can model how hard smoking is to avoid, maybe the public will reconsider how they feel about smoking bans.