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State lifts smoking ban in parks, other public sites

A sign at the entrance to Bryant Park

A sign at the entrance to Bryant Park notifies visitors of a new smoking ban in New York City. (May 23, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

State parks officials lifted a ban on smoking in public parks, beaches, pools and historic sites Tuesday after a smokers' rights group protested the prohibition.

But, in what the rights group sees as an apparent contradiction, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation will continue installing "No Smoking" signs urging people not to light up -- but no smokers will be ticketed for doing so until a new ban is created, as the state hopes to do.

"We're still putting the signs up in the parks," said an agency spokesman, Dan Keefe, explaining that the ban was lifted because the agency imposed it without properly gauging public opposition to it.

Regulations require a public comment period and impact statement when there is significant opposition to a proposed change in a rule. But opposition to the change came in unexpectedly, officials said.

"Because we received the substantive comment, we are submitting through the state rule-making process a regulatory impact statement and that will be followed by a 45-day comment period," Keefe added.

He said the ban was installed in April through what is called "a consensus rule-making process" because "we didn't anticipate a controversy." For now, the agency will "ask visitors who smoke to comply with the nonsmoking designations out of courtesy to nonsmoking patrons," according to a statement.

Lifting of the ban, though believed to be temporary, emboldened officials at the smokers' rights group who vowed to fight the ban even when it is recast using the more lengthy and open rule-making process. They said smokers remain in a kind of limbo since the signs in the locations say they should not smoke, yet the law says they still may do so.

"There is only one way for the public to interpret this language: as meaning that smoking is prohibited by law," said Audrey Silk, of NYC Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, in a statement.

She added: "There's nothing to imply that the 'prohibition' is unenforceable, which it now clearly is. The Office of Parks' behavior goes from bad to worse -- from at least the facade of official policy-making to settling for simply fooling people with unofficial signs."

Michael Seilback, vice president, public policy and communications for the American Lung Association in New York, said he was "extremely disappointed" with the suspension of the ban but he added that it provides people an opportunity to speak out against smoking."This will make it an even more transparent and open process," said Seilback, whose Hauppauge-based office covers New York and the New England states. "New Yorkers are sick of being exposed to toxic smoke that they have no control over."

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