Smoking significantly raises the level of dangerous air pollution in city streets, according to new research that has reignited the debate about banning cigarettes in public places.

A five-week study by Otago University researchers in Wellington found cigarettes cause big increases in the number of dangerous fine particulates - airborne particles linked to heart disease, altered lung function and lung cancer.

After testing the air quality around 284 smokers at the Lower Hutt shopping centre from an average distance of 2.6 metres they recorded a 70 per cent increase in particulates when smokers were around.

Readings peaked at 26 times the normal level at a bus stop under an overhanging roof.


Co-author Associate Professor Nick Wilson said the study was the first to examine smoking's contribution to air pollution on city streets.

Air pollution kills about 1000 New Zealanders each year.

''(Smoking is) adding to air pollution. People are being exposed to this all the time, as well as industry pollution and home fires. If we had smokefree streets that would be reducing this hazard.''

He urged councils to protect pedestrian health by implementing smokefree policies in shopping areas.

Benefits would include decreased cleaning costs, better public image, the reduction of second hand smoke drifting into shops and offices and reduced nuisance impact for other pedestrians.

"They should be particularly concerned about protecting bar and restaurant workers who frequently have to breathe in second hand smoke when servicing outdoor tables with smokers,'' said Mr Wilson.

Researchers said smokefree policies had been adopted for at least some outdoor parts of shopping areas in Australia, Japan and the United States.

Auckland Council is considering a ban on smoking in public places but is not planning a bylaw that would allow it to penalise offenders.

Initially it would be limited to open spaces such as parks, reserves, skate parks, playgrounds and sports fields, but over time could be extended to other public places and events, said a council spokesman.

Councillor George Wood said "innocent passersby'' were constantly affected by smokers polluting the air and he wanted the habit banned in public.

"Around bus stops especially, people are being impacted upon by people coming out and lighting up. The council is bringing in a ban of smoking in public areas but it doesn't have any intention of backing it up with any penalty for breaching the ban. Unless they do that I think it's a futile exercise,'' he said.

But fellow councillor Dick Quax said people should be allowed to smoke in designated areas and enforcing a ban was not the council's role.

Action on Smoking and Health and the Auckland Regional Public Health Service both support the ban.

Hospitality Association chief executive Bruce Robertson said designated smoking areas worked well and smokers were generally respectful about where they lit up.

"Certainly it hasn't been an issue - we haven't had any conerns expressed by staff.''

The study has been published in the international journal Health & Place. The research was funded by the Cancer Society of New Zealand's Wellington Branch.