Journal News: What will Metro-North train platform smoke ban mean?

(September 11, 2011)


Sep. 11, 2011  |  

It will be just a couple more months now before smokers won't be allowed to light up on Metro-North Railroad train platforms.

"I think it's a wonderful idea," Mount Vernon resident Pearl Gill told me on a recent morning, when she was waiting at the Mount Vernon East platform for a train to Larchmont, where she takes yoga. "Sometimes it's hard to find a spot on the platform where smoke is not blowing in your face."

New Rochelle resident Diane Wallace, who takes Metro-North into Manhattan occasionally , said she smokes, but is considerate enough to step back if she's around a group of others. She said smokers should be allowed to light up.

"If I'm outside, nobody has a right to tell me to put my cigarette out," she said. "It's my business."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the law in mid-August, and it takes effect in mid-November.

We've all seen the growth of smoking prohibitions, but the ban on train platforms, as well as ticketing areas at the stations, raised two questions for me: How much of a health hazard is second-hand smoke to those who breathe it for a few minutes while waiting on the platform?

And, if smokers are forced to take their final drags off the platforms, will they gather at the entrances to some of the stations — White Plains, for example — creating a thicker cloud to pass through than any single smoker spread throughout a platform?

On the first question, several health experts I talked to said yes, there is a danger.

Some pointed to a California Environmental Protection Agency study from a few years ago showing that some nicotine concentrations around smokers outdoors can be just as high as some of indoor exposures.

Particularly people who suffer from asthma or heart conditions can have attacks triggered by small amounts of smoke, some said. And for children it's worse, said Dr. Irwin Berlin, board chairman of the American Lung Association in New York.

"Kids breathe more rapidly than adults so they take in more of (the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke) than others," he said. "No one really should have to endure being exposed to all of these toxic chemicals as part of their daily commute."

Some cite a caution from the U.S. Surgeon General that "there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke." And Berlin noted that for commuters it's not just a couple of minutes — it's a couple of minutes every day.

Doris Green, who was traveling with Gill to the Larchmont yoga class, said she has allergies that can be set off with any amount of smoke. "It stuffs me up and gives me a headache," she said.

Audrey Silk, founder of New York City C.L.A.S.H. — citizens lobbying against smoker harassment — said those who oppose smoking are exaggerating the dangers. "It's making it as difficult as possible to light up in the hopes that they'll force people to quit out of frustration," she said.

As for the possibility of smokers gathered outside train stations, Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said it will be up to smokers' sense of courtesy to avoid creating a nuisance.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is expected to begin later this month writing out the rules, which also effect Long Island Rail Road, Anders said.