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NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York State will not enforce a controversial smoking ban in its state parks - at least for now - after a smokers' rights group complained officials failed to follow proper procedures when introducing the rule.
The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said on Tuesday it hopes smokers will nonetheless choose to voluntarily refrain from the habit even without the threat of a ticket or citation, and is leaving No Smoking signs in place while it seeks to get the ban formally recognized.
"There's a state rule-making process that we're undergoing that will take a couple of months and in that time we will not issue tickets," Dan Keefe, a spokesman for the parks office, said. "We've designated no-smoking areas in limited parts of the parks, and those remain in place."
The parks office had announced the smoking restrictions with immediate effect in April, saying that smokers who refused to comply could face a citation for disorderly conduct.
That prompted complaints from the smokers' rights group NYC C.L.A.S.H. that the parks office did not follow state rules about creating new policies.
In response, state officials decided to defer enforcement and follow the rulemaking process, which will include a 45-day period where the public can comment on the policy.
"Apparently, the crusade against smokers to date has so emboldened government that the rule of law no longer need be practiced when it comes to its citizens that choose to smoke," Audrey Silk, the founder of C.L.A.S.H., said in a statement.
She said her group, which maintains that smokers are being unfairly harassed, will be opposing the new policy, saying such decisions should be in the hands of the legislature.
The state banned smoking entirely from six state-run parks in New York City, and in portions of parks elsewhere in the state, particularly in areas around swimming pools and playgrounds. It argued that the ban would reduce litter and reduce park visitors' exposure to second-hand smoke, which has been linked to health problems in non-smokers.
New York City banned smoking at city-run parks and beaches in May 2011. A spokeswoman for the city's health department said the city's policy would not be affected by the state's deferment. The health department said last week that the number of smokers and the volume of discarded cigarette butts in city parks had declined by about two-thirds following the ban.
Silk, of C.L.A.S.H., said she urged smokers to ignore the ban and light up in parks.
"There's no basis for it socially and scientifically," she said in an interview. "You can no longer reason with the irrational. There's only one response left and that's civil disobedience."
Editing by Paul Thomasch and Cynthia Osterman