Joseph Costa, who works as a construction worker in East Harlem, was getting his daily nicotine fix, puffing on his Newport cigarette at the corner of 127th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard.
“I don’t smoke as much as I used to,” said the 32 year-old smoker. “I can’t afford it anymore.”
New data shows that upper Manhattan has fewer smokers than it used to and ranks among the city’s top neighborhoods in smoking reduction, health officials boast. But despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial battle against tobacco, many people are still lighting up around Washington Heights and Harlem.
Bloomberg and New York City Health Commissioner Thomas A. Farley announced last month that citywide smoking rate hit an all-time low last year, with only 14 percent of adults smoking. That means that 450,000 people have kicked the habit throughout the five boroughs since 2002.
The Health Department found in a 2006 survey that among the 17 percent of Inwood and Washington Heights residents who still smoked, more than 75 percent were trying to quit, compared with 66 percent in the rest of the city.
“The progress didn’t just happen,” Farley said at a press conference. “It is the result of deliberate steps taken by the mayor and the City Council since 2002.”
The anti-smoking crusade started in 2002 with passage of the controversial Smoke Free Act, which banned smoking in bars and restaurants and, this year, expanded to include parks, beaches and plazas. At the same time, hard-hitting media campaigns have driven thousands to call the city’s 311 line for assistance in quitting smoking. Extensive distribution of free nicotine patches and gum as well rising New York State cigarette taxes have also encouraged smokers to quit.
“I used to love having a cigarette in the park during a picnic or with my coffee,” said Laura Gomez, 28, who has smoked for eight years. “But now, it’s impossible, so I quit,” she said. The ban, which makes it hard to light up anywhere outside her home, has motivated her to stop.
The prohibition on smoking in parks has also proved effective, uptown leaders said.
“People used to smoke more before the ban,” said Elizabeth Lorris Ritter, who sits on Community Board 12’s Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee. Ritter believes the law helps solve both public health and littering problems.
“I’ve done a lot of cleanups on the streets and there were a lot of cigarette butts, but there are so much less now,” she said.
But while official data shows that Central Harlem has seen one of the city’s best reduction results, with an impressive 55 percent decline in adult smoking since 2002, business owners and medical experts took issue.
Although the city’s aggressive tobacco control legislation did build awareness of smoking-related diseases, many uptown residents still struggle with the habit.
“Most people know about the risks, but I have not seen much of a change in the patients,” said Reynold Trowers, chief of the Emergency Department at the Harlem Hospital Center. “I don’t think smoking restrictions apply to the people uptown,” he said.
City data does show variations by uptown neighborhood. The most recent survey the Health Department conducted in 2004 showed that 27 percent of East Harlem residents smoked, compared with 17 percent in Manhattan overall, and only 59 percent of East Harlerm smokers were trying to quit.
Raja M. Flores, a thoracic surgeon specializing in lung cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in East Harlem, doesn’t see a relation between the statistics and his patients’ condition.
“In my patients, the smoking rate is still the same,” he said. “Most of the patients I see have lung cancer but they smoke anyway.”
Abudullah Ahmed, who works at a bodega on 110th Street and Park Avenue, says he hasn’t seen a drop in his sales and that Newport cigarettes were still in high demand. “We still sell the same amount, approximately 8 to 10 cartons a month,” he said. Of the anti-smoking laws, he said, “People make them, people bend them and people break them.”
Locals also debated the city’s report that some of the steepest citywide declines were registered among teenagers, with an 11 percent decline in high school smokers last year. Uptown, some residents argued, young people keep smoking but have stopped buying their own cigarettes.
“These people take their parents’ cigarettes, that is why they see a drop like that,” explained Flores.
As tobacco taxes have booted the price of a pack to $15 – twice the cost of a decade ago – people have come up with alternative, and sometimes, illegal ways to satisfy their addiction, local business owners say.
Hemya Hamid, who manages the GM Express grocery on Lexington Avenue and 110th Street, blames taxes and fierce competition for the drop of his sales.
“Other stores are selling the cigarettes cheaper, without the taxes,” he said. “People will not stop buying cigarettes, they will just go to a different store.”
To avoid higher prices, smokers now shop tax-free, and illegally, on the Internet, said Sergio Lopez, manager of the Amsterdam Tobacco Association on Lexington Avenue and 102nd Street. Lopez doesn’t believe that increased cigarette taxes have led to more people quitting. “They will keep on smoking but will find cheaper ways to get their cigarettes,” he said.