Even as the City Rejects the Habit, One Place Is Still Tobacco Road



JULY 1, 2007

From the southernmost tip of Manhattan, even on a clear summer day, Staten Island can appear shrouded in a smoky haze.

There’s the pollution, which has earned the island the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality in the city. And there’s the cigarette smoke, which, according to a report released 10 days ago by the city’s Health Department, has hardly dissipated over the last four years, despite declining numbers in every other borough.

According to the report, 27 percent of adult residents of Staten Island puffed away in 2006, the same percentage as in 2002. During the same period, smoking rates among adults plummeted elsewhere in the city, bringing the city’s 2006 smoking average to 17.5 percent, a record low.

As to why Staten Islanders are the only city residents who don’t seem to be quitting smoking, no one is quite sure.

“It’s the $64,000 question,” said Sarah Perl, the assistant commissioner of the city’s Bureau of Tobacco Control, who credits the sharp drops elsewhere to higher cigarette taxes, a ban on indoor smoking and an antismoking ad campaign.

Donna Shelley, an assistant professor at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, was also unsure how to explain the Staten Island results, but she noted that the borough has a long history of high smoking rates. She also wondered, as Ms. Perl did, if the city’s antismoking ads need to be tailored more to the borough population.

Staten Islanders themselves are mystified by their behavior.

“God, I have no idea why,” said Christine Morrill, a 33-year-old Staten Islander from West Brighton.

“I had lymphoma, and I still smoke,” she added as she sat at the bar in Duffy’s, a neighborhood tavern on Forest Avenue, her miniature dachshund nibbling on her burger.

Down the avenue in front of Jody’s Club Forest bar, Norman Senk, a 49-year-old Staten Island native with a white stubbly beard who smokes two packs a day, had a more philosophical take on things. “We like to smoke; hey, what are you gonna do?” he said as he leaned back in a green plastic lawn chair and took a drag on a Marlboro Red.

As the Health Department works to develop a plan of action, Ms. Perl intends to send researchers to Staten Island to interview residents directly.

Maybe she should consider a suggestion from Kevin Gill, who said at Jody’s bar that his 23-year-old daughter has been a smoker for 10 years. “I’d like to take her to the morgue and show her a pink, healthy lung and then a black smoker’s lung,” Mr. Gill said. “I think that would make anyone stop right there.”