Richard Drew  /  AP
A woman smokes a cigarette in New York's Times Square. A new law bans smoking in New York City's 43 square miles of urban parks and other public places. The law will be enforced with a $50 fine per violation.
updated 5/24/2011 1:05:58 PM ET 2011-05-24T17:05:58

New York City is telling folks to butt out.

A new law went into effect Monday banning smoking in 43 square miles of parks, public plazas, beaches and boardwalks in the city.

The law, with a $50 fine attached, aims to protect New Yorkers from secondhand smoking in often elbow-to-elbow environments. But some health experts question whether the smoke poses a serious danger in open spaces, and critics say the city is trampling on civil liberties.

"People who smoke have the right to do it," said Shirley Scott, an ex-smoker visiting New York on Monday with her husband, who goes through three packs a day.

"This is a real infringement of people's rights — it's baloney!" she added, smiling at 68-year-old Mickey Scott as he puffed.

Cigarettes aren't the only source of pollution, he pointed out.

"If there's a law against smoking in Times Square, then there should be a law for no stinking cars in the city!" he said.

But when informed about the measure, the retired welder put out his cigarette and the couple from the small town of Shell Rock, Iowa, strolled toward a sidewalk, holding hands.

The New York City Council approved the ban in February. The first day it kicked in felt more like a public awareness campaign than a strictly enforced, punitive law.

Members of the NYPD patrolling the square alongside employees of the neighborhood business alliance went easy on smokers.

"I tell them, there's a new law today — and they comply," said David Moy, of the Times Square Alliance. He noted that smoking is allowed feet away on sidewalks.

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On Monday, smoke kept rising in the off-limits zone, despite small anti-smoking signs posted in several spots. The city has said it plans to rely on signs and social pressure instead of active enforcement.

In front of Macy's, Amanda Perez was smoking at a table on a pedestrians-only island, taking a break from her job at a nearby building.

"Really?" said the 21-year-old security guard when told it was illegal.

She was on her first of two daily cigarettes. She's gradually cut down from a two-pack-a-day habit.

"This new law is a great idea," she said.

A government ban on smoking is nothing new in New York. The city forbid smoking in restaurants, bars and other public indoor spaces already in 2002.

There's little mercy for smokers who light up indoors. But outdoors, "there are going to be violations," said Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates, a nonprofit dedicated to improving urban parks and open spaces.

He accused Mayor Michael Bloomberg of playing politics by supporting a law that is not being strictly enforced.

"He's trying to play both sides: He doesn't want to be perceived as taking away people's rights, and he wants to look good on the health side," said Croft. "But if you don't enforce the law, you might as well not have a law."

Bloomberg spokesman Marc LaVorgna said that in New York bars and restaurants, "we don't have officers patrolling. And I don't see people smoking."

Besides, he said, "New Yorkers generally follow the law, and we don't believe any crackdown is necessary."

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