Smokers' Revolt

This article was published in a Brooklyn weekly in mid-2005.

Just before midnight on a recent Thursday at an intimate, darkly lit bar in Williamsburg, an attractive young woman – let’s call her Cynthia – pulled a Marlboro Light out of her purse, flicked open a lighter, and brought cigarette to flame in plain sight of the bartender. She inhaled deeply, blew a billowy gray cloud into the previously unsullied air, and smiled. Within minutes, a nicotine domino effect had smokers lighting up in every corner of the cozy space and the bar had gone back in time, to New York City circa 2002.

“Once again, we’ve taken back the night,” said Cynthia, proudly surveying what she’d wrought.

A little more than two years after Mayor Bloomberg’s Indoor Smoke-Free Act went into effect in April 2003, the city’s late night bar goers are conveniently “fuhgedding” about it and lighting up indoors late at night. What was recently the sole provenance of the city’s few tobacco bars is fast becoming de rigeur for happening New York nightspots after midnight, posing public health risks and often infuriating abstainers.

“When the ban first went into effect we would only let people smoke in here every once in a while, and even then only after 2 a.m.,” said Heather, a fast-talking, raven-haired bartender, from behind her Williamsburg bar recently. “Now the cigarettes come out every night after midnight, and it’s the same in a lot of the bars around here, too.”

A recent Friday night survey found indoor smoking in 8 out of 20 Williamsburg bars, including Zablonski’s, Blu Lounge, and the Brooklyn Ale House. In another hot neighborhood, the Lower East Side, the numbers were slightly lower, at just under 40%. Even with the temperature rising and Bloomberg offering free nicotine patches to any quitter who calls 311 looking for a quick fix, smokers seem undeterred.

Chad Gracia, 35, a non-smoking theater producer who lives in Hell’s Kitchen and frequents bars in the Meatpacking District and Lower East Side, pointed the finger at the smokers themselves.
“It’s the fault of this cutting edge, smoking hipster class, who think it’s just a harmless end of the night indulgence,” he said. “In reality its cuts through my ability to have an enjoyable, peaceful evening. More importantly, it’s a legitimate health risk.”

Indeed, the dangers of second-hand smoke have been widely-reported and the law itself claims that employees of smoking establishments have a 50% higher risk of lung cancer whether they themselves smoke or not.

“Last night I did some late night bar-hopping in the Village and Meatpacking District with some friends, and I can’t remember a single place where we weren’t surrounded by smokers,” Gracia said. “Now my throat hurts and my clothes stink. It’s like 2002 all over again.”

“It’s definitely a hazard to public health,” said Lauralee Munson of the American Lung Association’s New York chapter, who has monitored the effectiveness of the ban. “Something should be done.”

The law itself places the responsibility squarely on the city, stating “the department shall enforce the provisions of this [ban].” Yet a 311 operator, who had recently taken several smoking complaints, quoted a Dept. of Health brochure that read: “enforcement of the ban is the responsibility of the establishment.” Repeated requests for department clarification and comment were left unanswered.

“The inspectors were originally sent around after the ban went into effect to make sure bars put up no smoking signs and removed ashtrays,” said Munson. “That work is done so they’re not coming around anymore. Now it’s really up to the bar owners, and lots of them would rather have the smoking crowd.”

The reality bears out Munson’s assertion, with many late night establishments turning a blind eye. In the Tribeca club Mannahatta, cigarette smoke mingled with manufactured dance floor fog as revelers puffed with impunity on a recent Friday. The bartender, a slim 30-ish Ukrainian woman who was also smoking, said, “It’s like the law never happened in here.”

Asked if the owner of her bar was aware of the nightly smoking, Heather laughed and said, “She pretends not to know.”

Colum, an East Village bartender, was more forthcoming.

“Of course the owner knows – it was his idea,” he said, as several patrons drank and smoked at the bar behind him. “Look, would you rather five, ten smokers standing outside making noise at 1 a.m., waking up the neighbors and causing problems, or would you rather have them in the bar buying drinks? After midnight – sometimes even earlier – we prefer the smokers to stay inside.”

Desire for increased sales and neighborhood tranquility may have helped, but lax enforcement from the Health Dept. has played a major part.

“At the start, the inspectors were here pretty regularly,” said Colum. “We even got a couple of fines. But now they’ve pretty much disappeared. I haven’t seen an inspector in months, so we feel like we can do what we want.”

Citing sales concerns, city bar and tavern owners have been vocal in their opposition to the ban since Bloomberg first broached the topic in 2002. This past March, the state legislature approved a bill that gives public officials the power to give a waiver to establishments that are experiencing financial hardship because of the ban.

At the same time, the disappearance of inspectors appears to coincide with increased business for these establishments. A state Department of Taxation and Finance report released earlier this month revealed that, after six months of falling sales following the advent of the ban, New York City bars and taverns have experienced growth in four straight quarters, going back to late 2003. The report suggests that smokers have been flaunting the ban in increasing numbers.
Suggestions for better enforcement were less than revelatory.

“The inspectors have to get back on the beat and owners need to step up their enforcement, too,” suggested Munson. “Otherwise it will keep getting worse.”

Gracia recommended vigilante justice.

“People just have to keep an eye out,” he said. “I did it myself once. Went up to a guy trying to be the trailblazer and politely asked him to stop. He immediately put his cigarette out and apologized profusely.”

It is unlikely, however, that all New Yorkers will be so polite.

Prichard Smith, a Williamsburg filmmaker drinking among smokers in an East Village bar recently, sees complete obedience as an impossibility.

“In New York City, when you go out, you gotta expect to run into some smokers, some rule breakers; that’s what this city is all about,” said Smith, a nonsmoker who is not bothered by the return of the late night haze. “If I wanted everybody to follow the rules, I’d live in Iowa.”

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