New York's bar patrons may lose the right to smoke
NEW YORK â€” When people try to describe the air in Wonder Bar, a very popular and very smoky place in the East Village, they talk about chimneys, L.A. smog, tear gas. The "Wonder," they agree, is that you can breathe at all.
As it turns out, Wonder Bar's patrons may have sold it short. According to city Health Department agents who spent a night barhopping with a portable air sampler, the atmosphere in a typical saloon is worse than the Holland Tunnel â€” at rush hour.
Soon that may change, here and around the country. Under assault by anti-smokers, bars â€” the last great smoked-filled rooms, where some of the old romance of cigarettes still lingers â€” are in danger of clearing up.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a zealous reformed smoker who already has helped make cigarettes here the most highly taxed in the USA, wants to ban smoking at bars, restaurants, pool halls, bingo parlors and bowling alleys. The smoking ban would even extend to outdoor cafes and private clubs. About 13,000 establishments in all would be affected.
Smoking has been banned in most restaurants and office buildings here since 1995. Bloomberg's proposal would extend the prohibition to the hazy heart of smoking in America: the New York barroom. Anti-smoking advocates say if they can stop it here, they can stop it anywhere.
California and Delaware have statewide bans on smoking in bars and restaurants, and dozens of localities have adopted such bans. But New York would be by far the largest city to pass its own measure. Anti-smoking forces are looking forward to an enormous psychological victory.
"The New York bar is the last bastion," says Diane Maple of the American Lung Association.
The City Council held a hearing two weeks ago on the mayor's proposal. Most observers expect it to pass largely intact. Polls indicate that most New Yorkers support the smoking ban.
Across the country, smoking and smokers are on the defensive.
Twenty states have approved or implemented tobacco tax increases this year, the most since such taxes began in the 1920s. Six states have more than doubled their levies. Tax increases will be on the ballot in Arizona and Missouri next month.
Most of the new tobacco taxes are designed primarily to plug state budget gaps, but they may have a dramatic affect on smoking. Research indicates that a 10% increase in the price of cigarettes leads to a 2% reduction in adult smoking and to a 6-7% decline in youth smoking. If so, the spate of state tax increases could lead about 400,000 adult Americans to stop smoking and deter another 590,000 young ones from starting.
More than 70 localities around the nation have banned smoking in bars and restaurants. Bans are under consideration in Washington, Chicago and Boston, where Mayor Thomas Menino summed up the political climate: "Want to smoke? Go outside."
The movement has spread to Marlboro Country. Cities such as Helena, Mont.; El Paso; and Tempe, Ariz., have enacted bans despite the opposition of restaurant and bar owners.
Florida voters will consider a referendum to ban smoking in most public places in November.
Smoking in general continues to decline â€” by 2% last year, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Now, less than a quarter of adults smoke, and studies show that most of those who do want to quit. After the recent tax increases, smoking "quitlines" reported an upsurge in calls.
"There are no 'smokers rights' anymore," says Paul Brackett, bartender at Wonder Bar. "Nobody's really proud to be a smoker."
New York: One smokin' town
Bars have been here since this was New Amsterdam. The first tavern became the town hall. And bars have always had smokers: Frank Sinatra in the wee small hours and Dorothy Day in her wild youth; Joe DiMaggio at Toots Shor's, Jackson Pollock at the Cedar Inn, Edward R. Murrow on the air; everyone at the Algonquin Round Table. Even George Washington might have smoked here.
But this matters little to Bloomberg, the media tycoon-turned mayor who kicked smoking two decades ago. For him, it's apparently not about politics â€” a million New Yorkers of voting age smoke â€” or tax revenue. Despite a looming fiscal crisis, he says he hopes that one day tobacco tax receipts will be zero.
For Bloomberg, it's about morality. He says smokers must not hurt others with secondhand smoke, and lawmakers must not let them. He also says that bar and restaurant workers, above all, must be protected.
He usually couches the issue as one of workplace health and safety. He cites studies showing that:
A bartender breathes as much secondhand smoke in an eight-hour shift as he would if he smoked a half-pack of cigarettes.
Bar and restaurant workers have a 50% higher chance of getting cancer than other workers.
The mayor's zeal seems to have increased in August after two Health Department agents armed with battery-powered air-quality meters spent several hours at four Manhattan bars, three of which allow smoking. The conclusion: The smoking bars' air was 50 times worse than the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.
Bloomberg's only uncertainty on the subject seems to be whether smokers are crazy or stupid. He has publicly expressed both convictions. In radio ads and in chance encounters outside City Hall, he has warned New Yorkers about secondhand smoke and predicted that one day children might sue smoking parents.
He has let it be known that he will support City Council members who vote for his bill and oppose those who don't. He has called trying to delay the ban "an attempt to injure people."
When he learned, via the New York Post, that city Housing Authority workers were spending too much time on cigarette breaks outside their offices across from City Hall, the mayor fumed. The Post clocked an $80,000-a-year executive taking 69 minutes in smoke breaks before lunch; Bloomberg fired him.
The mayor's most dramatic blow against the evil weed thus far has been an increase in the city's cigarette tax from 8 cents to $1.50 a pack. This helped push the cost of a pack to around $7.50, the highest in the country. Retail sales have dropped almost 50% since the price increase July 2, and smuggling and Internet sales are thought to have increased substantially.
'Fooler packs' employed
In saloons, where a pack of smokes now costs as much as $9, bartenders say patrons who once bummed off others have begun to offer to pay 35 or 40 cents for an individual cigarette. Some smokers have begun displaying "fooler packs" with one or two cigarettes while keeping their main stash out of sight to protect themselves from freeloaders.
At the Dublin House on the Upper West Side, bartender Jerry Daly has noticed a dramatic drop in cigarette packs left on the bar at the end of the night. "They're too expensive to forget," he says.
There has been a backlash against Bloomberg's crusade. The mayor raised cigarette taxes so much, writes the New York Post's critic Linda Stasi, "that he's now the only person in the city with enough money left to buy a pack." An editorial complained that "Mommy Mike" is "trying to turn New York into a nanny state."
Many smokers agree. "Since time immemorial, smoking and drinking have gone hand in hand," says Ryan Granger, 37, an ad man enjoying a Dewar's and a Marlboro at Scruffy Duffy's bar on Eighth Avenue. He and other smokers say bars are virtually the last places they can have a relaxed public social encounter.
"What's next?" asks Joe Tirrell, 25, who sometimes drops by McSorley's Old Ale House after work. "No smoking in your own living room?" Others warn of a new Prohibition, complete with "smokeasies."
Bar owners say the ban would hurt business by keeping away smokers, who tend to stay longer and spend more than non-smokers, and force smokers onto the street. "A sidewalk full of smokers at night and a gutter full of butts the next morning? How's that going to affect the quality of life the mayor's worried about?" asks Brackett, the barkeep at Wonder Bar.
As for the worker health issue, most bartenders say if they were worried about smoke, they wouldn't work in bars.
"I don't need government protection. I smoke myself," says Shannon McCormick of Smoke, an Upper West Side jazz club. "This is what I choose to do with my life. (The ban) is an infringement on my rights."
Her colleague, Frank Christopher, agrees: "People do stupid things. That's why we're people. If we were robots, we wouldn't smoke. ... People like to flirt with danger. Some people jump out of airplanes. For a bartender, it goes with the biz."
Others are less happy with that compromise. "I don't like smoke, but this is my job," shrugs Lee Pagburn, who tends bar at the Stonewall, a landmark gay bar in Greenwich Village.
Some bar owners say Bloomberg's law would put them out of business. One is Brian Michels, who got in the business four years ago. "We wanted to do something, and this was the cigar bar era, so my partner ran this idea past me â€” a cigarette lounge," he recalls. "A nice little niche, we thought."
The result is Circa Tabac, a bar with more than 100 brands of cigarettes on sale â€” Egyptian, German, Indonesian. One Russian brand sells for $40 a pack. Michels says business has been great. But if smoking is banned, "we're probably gonna have to close."
Will smokers stay away?
No one really knows if the ban will hurt businesses. Advocates say bar and restaurant sales increased in California after the state banned smoking in 1998. Opponents attribute that to the economic boom and say business would have been even better had smokers not been driven away.
In Tempe, Ariz., where voters approved a smoking ban that took effect in late May, tax revenue from bars and restaurants fell by about 7% in June. Some bar owners blame the law and want it amended to allow smoking in places where food sales account for less than 40% of the business.
In New York, Paul Pacult, who writes a newsletter about bars and cocktails, expects "an initial dip in business, and weeping and gnashing of teeth for about six months. After that, bars will deal with it, and people will move on." Since there are many more non-smokers than smokers, if just some of the former go out to eat or drink more, it will be a net gain for bars and restaurants.
Even without a legal ban, there is probably less bar smoke overall these days around the city. Smoke, the jazz club, does not allow smoking at its early evening show, and the bar at a hot barbecue joint called Blue Smoke is smoke-free.
CafÃ© Gitane, named after the French brand of cigarettes, doesn't allow patrons to smoke. When owner Luc Levy had a blood test for life insurance, the results indicated he was a smoker, although he was not. He blamed secondhand smoke and in June banned smoking at his cafe. "Considering the name, it was difficult to do," he says. "But it was affecting too many people, including me."
Brackett, the bartender at Wonder Bar, comes from Winston-Salem, N.C., where, he says, "I smoked in my crib." He stopped for good on Valentine's Day. Even the bar isn't as smoky as it used to be, thanks to a new ventilation system.
But if bars are rendered smokeless, many feel something will be lost. Gary Reagan, who managed or tended bar for 20 years, says "I think that smokers include a greater percentage of peculiar characters. If they're gone from bars, you'll lose some of that magic."
Juliana Nash, an owner of Pete's Candy Store, a hip Brooklyn bar, says there's just something about a dark, smoky bar: "I'm not a smoker, but I expect that when I go into a bar, there'll be smoke. To me, that's part of what a bar is. I don't know â€” it's nostalgic."
And, to some, romantic. How many relationships began at a bar rail with the words, "Got a light?"
"It's not romantic!" growls Tim Zagat, an ex-smoker and the publisher of guides to restaurants and bars. "I smoked three packs a day. It would have killed me!"
Anyway, romance will probably survive. A cartoon in The New Yorker imagines a young man and woman sitting at a bar after Bloomberg's law has passed. So, he says to her, "would you like to go back to my place for a cigarette?"