Chinatown – A Last Holdout for NYC Smokers

Social worker Man Nam Ma is an unapologetic smoker. “I do it outside the office, outside my apartment building,” he said, stressing that his habit, done outdoors, does not compromise other people’s health.

In his Canal Street building, Wilson Lee said residents know of two people who smoke early in the morning outside the apartment complex. But not every smoker in the building follows the example of these two gentlemen, he said.

Lee, a retired dermatologist gave up cigarettes in the early 2000s when Mayor Bloomberg began his aggressive campaign for a smoke-free New York. His reasons: there’s a law, and cigarettes are becoming expensive.

In Manhattan’s Chinatown, smokers light up in public parks, outside schools and public markets and in subway stations. The city’s anti-smoking law bans cigarettes in these places as well as in restaurants. But in this Lower Manhattan neighborhood, smoking doesn’t have the negative image it has acquired in other parts of the city, and law enforcers tend to look the other way.

“For some it’s a habit carried over from when they were in China,” said Mae Lee, executive director of the nonprofit Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) which conducted a smoking cessation campaign in the early 2000. In China smoking often caps a hefty meal and high-end cigarettes are used as gifts for special occasions.

Buying vegetables in Chinatown; photo by Cristina DC Pastor

Community organizations have conducted sporadic anti-smoking education and awareness campaigns that have been somewhat successful mostly among younger Chinese immigrants. Mae Lee said that the drive against secondhand smoke has created some traction.

“I know of some people who have quit smoking,” she said.

Without conceding that the community had given up on the older generation for whom smoking may be a form of addiction, Lee said outreach efforts are focused on younger immigrants. It is critical she said, that the anti-smoking message get to them before they reach their teen years. The American Cancer Society has said time and again that smoking is responsible for cancer-related deaths.

In Chinatown, with an estimated population of 100,000 Chinese-speaking people, smoking is a way of life. Chinese elders can be seen holding on to their children with one hand, a cigarette in the other. Some men are seen smoking while watching their wives participate in Tai Chi exercises or watching a game of basketball. At the Hester Street Park, the grounds are littered with discarded cigarette butts.

A cigarette while waiting; photo by Cristina DC Pastor

“Columbus Park, one of the more lively parks in Chinatown, is a place unfortunately known for its smokers and secondhand smoke exposure,” said Rachelle Ocampo, a health educator who specializes in tobacco control. She said her colleagues who are Chinese health care providers, have told her that smoking is still socially acceptable among many Chinese immigrants and that men in particular use smoking to relieve stress from their work at restaurants or as drivers.

“Some residents are not familiar with the rule that smoking is prohibited in public parks because outreach and marketing have not been as proactive enough for people to take seriously,” explained Ocampo. “Enforcement is a major challenge. How can you expect fellow park-goers to tell each other to stop smoking if they do not even see the harm in smoking?”

No one from the New York Police Department spoke officially to Fi2W for this report, but one officer said imposing fines would be too much for many people in the community. He said Chinatown leaders are working to address the “education aspect,” and the NYPD is aware of those efforts.

“I’ve only heard of one case of someone being fined $50 for smoking since the parks ban started,” said Ocampo, who argues that education and outreach is a “better first step” than fines.

“Chinatown people smoke legally — in the open air,” said Man Nam Ma. When told that parks are no-smoking zones in New York City, he replied that the “law is changing” and that “smoking is one person’s own decision.”

Before the Bloomberg administration’s anti-smoking campaign began, recalled Mae Lee, smoking was widely marketed. “There would be cigarette banners or welcome rugs in shops like furniture stores.” Advertising by cigarette makers has slowed since the city promoted its anti-smoking campaign, but not entirely eliminated. She said outreach education continues, with local hospitals dispensing nicotine patches to those who want to quit as well as community leaders calling for smoke-free buildings.

“We tell real estate agents that it’s easier to rent out apartments or rooms that have no cigarette smell,” she said. Others are swayed by the economics of smoking, she added. “We tell them they will save money by quitting.” A pack of cigarettes costs $13. “We use creative ways.”

The NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City is aware the campaign is up against a deep-seated cultural forces.

At a forum early this year, the coalition identified the need for wider and sustained educational and media campaign to “encourage the Asian-American community to quit.” Among the solutions offered – promoting alternative ways of relieving stress, such as exercises; educating small businesses about the hazards of tobacco on the health of young people; and educating pharmacies about the importance of promoting a tobacco-free policy.

In restaurants where ‘No Smoking’ signs are clearly visible, the ban on smoking is supposed to be strictly enforced. But sometimes, a puffing customer comes in to order take-out – not to dine inside – and the owner just opens the door to keep the smoke from circulating in the dining room. “They do not stay long,” one Chinatown restaurant manager reasoned to Fi2W.

Former smoker Wilson Lee believes his community is getting a pass because the anti-smoking campaign might appear to target a specific ethnic group. Exasperated that smoke is getting inside his apartment, he said he favors a fine, the amount equal to a parking ticket.

“You are in New York now,” he said. “You gotta obey the law.”

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.

AboutCristina DC Pastor
Cristina DC Pastor, a former Fi2W Business and Economics Reporting fellow, is the publisher and editor of The FilAm ( Her book, “Scratch the News: Filipino Americans in Our Midst” (Inkwater, 2005), is a celebration of ordinary citizens at the center of extraordinary stories. She is a graduate of The New School.