Fuming mad in New York

Some thoughts on smoking as the outdoor ban is extended in New York to beaches and parks.

One evening in November 1492, as the wintry chill descended on a stretch of North American coastline, Christopher Columbus welcomed back two exhausted crewmen aboard his ship, the Santa Maria. Luis de Torres and Rodrigo de Jerrez had been sent ahead months earlier on a fool's errand: to search for China in the deep forests of Cuba. On their journeys, the Spanish scouts had witnessed natives "drinking" the smoke emanating from the end of "a musket formed of paper". De Jerrez had been curious enough to partake in this obscure ritual and, in doing so, became the first European to light up, cough and insist to sceptical friends that it was a pleasurable experience, honest. When he returned to his coastal home town of Ayamonte, he was swiftly sent to jail by the Spanish Inquisition; witnesses were so alarmed by the satanic clouds billowing from the corners of his mouth that a seven-year sentence was deemed necessary.

So began the white western world's troubled relationship with the nicotiana tabacum, bane of health-care professionals and tutting parents who insist upon sunning their children in the beer garden of the Prince George on Saturday afternoons (despite knowing that it is commonly used as a smoking area, as the stacked ashtrays suggest). In the Beatles song "I'm So Tired", John Lennon places the blame for cigarette addiction on Queen Elizabeth's goombah, Sir Walter Raleigh, who is dismissed as a "stupid get". It is, however, a curse that has deeper roots in America than in Britain.

Europeans may have "discovered" (or claimed) it when they "discovered" (or wreaked genocidal havoc on) the New World but the practice can be traced back as far as 5000BC, when it was used as part of ritual practices by ancient civilisations across North and South America. The plant has existed in its present form for millions of years: the oldest fossilised specimen, which dates back to the Pleistocene era, was unearthed in the Maranon river basin in north-eastern Peru last year.

The arguments against the evil habit are powerful and largely correct -- in November, a World Health Organisation study found that 600,000 deaths are caused each year by passive smoking, of which 167,000 are children under the age of 15. Smoking reduces your life expectancy by eight to ten years; each puff of smoke contains 60 substances known to cause cancer. More than five million people die every year from smoking-related illnesses, which, in Britain alone, cost £5bn in public spending -- about 6 per cent of the total NHS budget.

This week, councillors in New York State approved an extension of its public-smoking restrictions, prohibiting the yellow of tooth from puffing away on beaches, in parks and even in Times Square. In March 2003, the state introduced its controversial ban in the city's 20,000 bars, clubs and and restaurants, overcoming resistance from anxious bar owners and the 1.3 million local smokers for whom they catered. Yet this latest extension of the law, passed by 36 votes to 12, seems to me to be an excessive move that will only encourage the anti-ban lobby.

According to the BBC, the new rules make it "an offence to smoke in any of the city's 1,700 parks and along 14 miles of coastline". The passive-smoking argument wielded so convincingly in 2003 cannot be applied to outdoor spaces; this gives the impression that the extension is driven by cosmetic, rather than health, concerns. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, after the vote, "This summer, New Yorkers who go to our parks and beaches for some fresh air and fun will be able to breathe even cleaner air and sit on a beach not littered with cigarette butts." If litter is the problem, surely strengthening litter laws should be enough? Smokers have rights and should be allowed to damage themselves if they want to: the state shouldn't be given more powers over people engaging in legal activities that harm no one but themselves.

The western history of ciggies started with de Jerrez's persecution. In this light, perhaps this invasive development isn't so surprising. Now, off for a smoke...

 

PS. Apologies for the Daily Mail-esque headline.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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