London mayor Boris Johnson edges away from call to ban smoking in parks, open spaces

Mayor of London Boris Johnson speaks to the media after winning selection as the Conservative candidate for the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in London on Sept 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Mayor of London Boris Johnson speaks to the media after winning selection as the Conservative candidate for the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in London on Sept 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) - A proposal for London to follow the lead of cities like New York and Hong Kong by banning smoking in parks and open spaces received a cool welcome from Mayor Boris Johnson on Wednesday, who called it "taking bossiness too far".

The idea was contained in a report, commissioned by Mr Johnson himself, that aims to combat the threats posed by tobacco, alcohol, obesity, lack of exercise and pollution and that bills itself as the biggest public health drive in the world. "The Mayor should use his byelaw powers to make Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square smoke free," the report's author, former health minister Lord Ara Darzi, said in a statement. "It would be a powerful message for the iconic centre of our city and the political heart of our country to become smoke free."

Around one-fifth of Londoners still smoke, causing 8,400 early deaths each year, and as many as 67 schoolchildren in the capital take up the habit every day, the report said.

Mr Johnson should use his influence over the Royal Parks, the board of which he appoints, to introduce a ban, while local councils would pass similar byelaws for their open spaces, it added. The idea had been welcomed by health professionals and by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had introduced a similar ban in public outdoor areas like Central Park.

Mr Bloomberg had called the report a major achievement, adding: "Breathing tobacco smoke whether indoors or outdoors is harmful to your health. That's why we made Central Park and all of New York City's parks and beaches smoke-free, along with all indoor workplaces."

But Mr Johnson himself, while welcoming other parts of the report, did not endorse the proposed smoking ban. "People should be discouraged from smoking but I think actively to ban people from doing something that is legal in a big open space is taking bossiness too far," he told the BBC.

He now begins a consultation period on the report, including taking in the views of London's 32 local authorities. He has said he will need to be sure of the direct health benefits if he is to enact the report's smoking recommendations.

A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters the government had "no plans" for a parks ban.

Britain banned smoking in public workspaces including bars and restaurants in 2007 and huddled groups of smokers puffing away outside office buildings are a common sight in London.

But the idea of extending it to outdoor areas has drawn fire from pro-smoking lobbies.

"A ban on smoking in parks and squares would be outrageous," said Mr Simon Clark, director of Forest, which campaigns on behalf of smokers. "There's no health risk to anyone other than the smoker. If you don't like the smell, walk away."

He added in a statement: "The next thing you know we'll be banned from smoking in our own gardens in case a whiff of smoke travels over the fence."