Smokers puff away in defiance of the new Middle Neck...

Smokers puff away in defiance of the new Middle Neck Road smoking ban in Great Neck Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

At first blush, the Village of Great Neck's ban on smoking along a stretch of its main thoroughfare sounds like a prime example of the nanny-state run amok. Smoking is certainly bad for you, but whose concern is it if you puff in the great outdoors?

Then again, many things that seem outlandish at first blush make sense after some reflection - and the Great Neck ban is one of them. Lots of behavior is illegal on the streets, after all, in Great Neck and elsewhere. State law prohibits nudity or lewd acts in public, for example. And Great Neck itself bans the public consumption of alcohol from an open container, which has the effect of barring drinking on village streets. Showing too much skin or knocking back a beer are probably less harmful than smoking, yet no one complains about such restrictions.

Most village streets are still available for smoking, moreover, to say nothing of the homes and cars of smokers. So the ban falls well short of the kind of blanket prohibition that is guaranteed to fail. On the contrary, the Great Neck law - apparently Long Island's first - is just another brick in the useful edifice of hurdles we've erected to discourage one of the most harmful legal things people do to themselves.

Taken together, such hurdles are effective. Among affluent nations, the United States has been unusually successful at snuffing out smoking - not by banning it, but by smothering it in taxes, inconvenience and social disrepute.

Besides, pedestrians and merchants on Middle Neck Road in Great Neck shouldn't have to be subjected to the annoyance of other people's smoke; their comfort on public property, to say nothing of their health, defines the limit of a smoker's right to puff.

Government has an interest in the health of its citizens, if only because of the shared burden of medical care and the social cost of early death. There is evidence that even many smokers wish they could quit, and restrictions like Great Neck's, which help lengthen the time between cigarettes, can help reduce smoking and even may make it easier to break the habit. More people should; despite progress against smoking, tobacco kills some 443,000 Americans annually - accounting for one in five deaths.

It's easy to make fun of Great Neck's new ban. It would be smarter, perhaps, for other places to emulate it. hN