That scientists are borrowing methods used in landscape ecology to “map” smokers throughout the city might alarm some of the more paranoid denizens of Wellington, New Zealand.

Researchers at the University of Otago say they’ve mapped the “visibility of smoking” on the streets of Wellington, observing some 2,600 townspeople in their native environments — outdoor bars and cafes. Sixteen percent of those drinking and dining al fresco, visible to scientists creeping along a nearby footpath, were seen smoking cigarettes in research vaguely reminiscent of Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees.

Researcher Amber Pearson noted in a statement on Sunday the researchers had also observed a higher rate of cigarette smoking during evening hours. Though basic, such observations might help to convince policymakers to strive to stigmatize the behavior of smoking by introducing greater restrictions.

"Smokefree outdoor areas help smokers to quit, help those who have quit to stick with it, and reduce the normalisation of smoking for children and youth,” Thomson said in a statement. “They also reduce litter, water pollution and cleaning costs for local authorities and ratepayers.”

The researchers pointed to evolving public health policy in Canada and the United States with regard to indoor and outdoor public smoking bans, considered among the world’s toughest. Indeed, new findings published this week in the journal Tobacco Control attribute declining rates of smoking in the U.S. to lowered visibility of smoking on television.

Depictions of smoking on American prime-time television have fallen markedly since 1961, says Patrick E. Jamieson, a researcher with the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. But most interestingly, he and his colleagues found a correlation between a declining visibility of smoking on television and the consumption of cigarettes. During the past half-century, depictions of smoking on television have fallen from nearly five per hour to one every three hours or so.

Even after adjusting for the effects of higher cigarette prices today, the researchers said much of the decline in smoking rates might be attributable to lowered visibility on prime time television. Present trends on American airwaves indicate further reductions in the smoking rate, as U.S. adults smoke two packs of cigarettes less, on average, every year.

However, the continued depiction of smoking on television — though much more rare — has prevented even further declines in the overall smoking rate, the researchers added.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. with 480,000 deaths from related illnesses every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Source: Jamieson, Patrick E., Romer, Daniel. Portrayal of tobacco use in prime-time TV dramas: trends and associations with adult cigarette consumption—USA, 1955–2010. Tobacco Control. 2014.