"We are starving." O'Keeffe On The NYC Smoking Ban

07.9.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe | Urban Affairs | 17 Comments

“We are starving.” This comes from Bridget Mernahan, the mother of the owner of Bleeker Street’s Back Fence bar in New York’s West Village, and cocktail waitress there, who shared her plight with a raucous June 29th meeting of the Village Reform Democratic Club. At the meeting, held in Fr. Demos Hall of Our Lady of Pompeii on Carmine Street in the West Village, Bridget’s sentiments had plenty of company. Numerous bar owners and employees expressed their dismay at Mayor Bloomberg’s Smoke-Free Air Act of 2002, which celebrated its first birthday in March. Heckling came from all sides, evenly divided between tavern owners desperate for compromise and a more nuanced law and those content to end smoking by fiat.

Among the latter were Dr. Don Gemson from Columbia University and NYS
Assemblywoman for New York County, Deborah Glick (D). Dr. Gemson, citing studies from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes for Health on second hand smoke’s dangers, confidentially declared that “science is behind the law.” Building on Dr. Gemson’s comments, Assemblywoman Glick said she’d “like to see tobacco illegal.” A high school student marginally acquainted with the history of alcohol’s prohibition knows the foolhardiness of her statements.

Resisting the prevailing mood and refusing to frame the debate between people “who want to protect waitresses and people who want to kill waitresses” was Representative and former New York City Councilman Anthony Weiner (D). To illustrate his feeling that the government has overstepped its bounds and decimated New York nightlife, he recounted a conversation he had had with a woman who supports the ban gleefully, who quipped obliviously that “my hair doesn’t stink, my clothes don’t stink, and there’s so much room at the bar.”

Despite what naobobs like Dr. Gemson and Assemblywoman Glick seem to think, the smoking ban has done far more to harm small business than it has to prevent smoking.  An entire underground economy has sprung up around the ban to provide places for smokers. Knights of Columbus halls and private smoking dens are common, and bars spill crowds of smokers into the streets. Since the ban has been enacted noise complaints have skyrocketed, providing headaches to precinct captains citywide and proving a serious detriment to residents’ quality of life. Rarely noticed, bar owners in lower Manhattan still suffering from 9-11’s aftershocks are now victimized by thoughtless laws.

I spoke to Sandee Wright, owner of Whiskey Ward on Essex Street and a fierce opponent of the ban, put in place, ostensibly, to protect employees from the dangers of second hand smoke. Standing 5’3” with pink highlighted hair and a black skull and bones tank top, Sandee hardly fits the role of Dickensian wage master. When asked about the issue of employees’ health she retorted that “it’s not all that healthy when bartenders can’t afford their rent.” So far falling profits have led her to let go of two employees and cut back shifts. Often times her husband Max works the door to eliminate costs. When unemployment hits “health insurance is the first thing to go,” she said.

Whiskey Ward has seen profits drop by at least 20% since the ban hit. Manhattan Beer Distributors concurs. Stagnant sales have led to a 7% drop in beer demand citywide, and a 19% drop citywide to clubs.

“When bars do less business, they order less product, and that means less money in the checking accounts of union members and their families,” said Vincent Fyfe, President of United Commercial Food Workers Local 2-D. “Day by day, the smoking ban is undercutting our industry. It’s time for a more reasonable law.”

Sandee attributes her waning business to a ban that was “basically rammed down our throats” without regard to the economic realities of her industry. Instead of the current regime she suggests instead less imperious approaches, namely tax incentives for bars with clean air policies and having smoking in bars gradually phased out so as to give the public time to acclimate itself. Hopes of good faith negotiations with City Hall seem unlikely considering the proposed 1:00 AM bar closings, which the New York Nightlife Association fought tooth and nail. “I make 70% of my business between midnight and 4:00 AM,” she said.  “I might as well padlock my door.”

This article points out the flaws in one interest group playing "king of the mountain" with another interest group. I live in the Dallas, Tx. area, and the mayor has done the same thing to Dallas. No restaurants or bars are allowed smokers.

It seems, in my humble opinion, that since the two groups have different goals, and those goals are creating a tremendous hardship for small business, that a compromise could be reached, Restaurants should be able to block off a section of their establishment with complete isolation, install smoke filtering systems in the "smokers section", and thereby please both interest groups.

Has everyone forgotten what the word "cooperation" means? These sections could even be licensed separately by the yuppy government idiots that demand everything "their way or no way."

And so it goes!
07.9.2004 | A smoker
The lack of cooperation on the part of the city is at the heart of the problem. Are smoking and second hand smoke undisputable and serious health hazards, of course. But, considering that the Mayor's office has hardly now or since played savior to bartenders before it the current ban seems rather disingenous.
07.9.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe
Having unavoidably missedthe meeting, I won't comment on the content. Suffice to add that any open discussion on this divisive issue is valuable. Allowing smoking in certain parts of suitably adapted bars, which use the latest air-purification systems is the only viable solution. Allowing smokers to congregate where they are 'removed' from the non-smoking population is sensible. Allowing the anti-smokers to control a business marketplace and jeopardise the future of an entire sector of the high-value hospitality industry is nonsense. It akin to allowing children run their own school. Its academically possible, but it's future is bleak!
Other nightlife curbs are peeking over the horizon. Noise - Litter - No-Dancing - Early-closing - Prohibition! Its an inevitable and slippery slope!

07.9.2004 | Brian Nolan
You don't even need to go that far, simple economics can fix this problem. The only place that smoking should be banned is in publicly owned buildings. In restaurants and bars, smoking should of course be legal because people choose to go to restaurants and bars. You don't choose to go to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to renew your driver's license, but you do choose to go the neighborhood tavern to get a beer. Now, if a bar allows its patrons to smoke and non-smoking patrons don't like it, they will stop patronizing that bar. At that point, either more smokers will start using that bar and compensate for the departed non-smokers, or the profits of the bar will drop dramatically, whereupon the bar owner can choose to make some accomodation to non-smokers, or lose his business.

Regulation is not needed in this instance. We the people can regulate just fine, and I say this as a non-smoker who hates second hand smoke.
07.9.2004 | Matt Luby
The justification provided for the smoking ban was that it protects the employees in businesses and public spaces from exposure. How can one not mention this in an article on the prohibition. We can all agree that the govt has overreached here but if you dont address the stated reason for the law you're not going to get very far.
07.9.2004 | Donald Murphy
i have made the point that the law is ostensibly at best about worker's health but as Sandee Wright points out concisely ?it?s not all that healthy (when) bartenders can?t afford their rent.?
07.9.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe
Exactly, I thought you made that point well, Mr. O'Keeffe. High minded people like these anti-smoking crusaders and those who agitate for a worldwide worker's bill of rights or something like that often do more harm than good to the people they are trying to help. Better to be employed than to starve.

I think of the example of Ireland, one that is near and dear to my heart (being an Irish American) and probably for Mr. O'Keeffe as well. They've recently banned smoking in restaurants and pubs there, and the result has been catastrophic for many pubs. There was a story on Yahoo recently about the troubles these pubs are facing. What is the point of such high-minded legislation if you are just going to add more people to the unemployment line?
07.10.2004 | Matt Luby
Its interesting to hear people lay the issue of out of work waitresses totally at the feet of the smoking ban. Could any of it, maybe, possibly have to do with a little thing called a recession? Let's face it, NY has been in a bad place economically and to lay the loss of jobs on the smoking ban is self serving for those against it. In my own circle of friends, I don't know of a single one who goes out less because of the ban, and some of them are heavy heavy smokers. Just last night I went out and walked through two bar corridors and did not see one wanting for traffic.

07.11.2004 | Alex Gadea
In response to Alex Gadea's comments: yes we are in the middle of an economic downturn which is all the more reason to eschew social engineering with such obvious economic hazards. If smoking had little or now effect on business why hadn't bars decided to enact clean air policies on their own?

Also the present recession has existed longer than the ban by almost two years; if bar owner's woes are simply a function of said recession why the sudden outcry against the ban?
07.11.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe
Richard, your opinion piece is a welcome addition to the hundreds if not thousands of opinion pieces by columnists across the country over the last ten years (give or take) that takes the anti-smoking crusade/rs to task.

There are more than several different arguments that apply in objecting to the prohibitionists. Your piece took up the argument that bans DO hurt business and the very pockets of the employees this law is alleged to protect. However, all arguments are negated when you acquiesce, as you did in your follow-up comment, to the cornerstone of the anti-smoking movement/laws -- which is that secondhand smoke kills.

You wrote, "Are smoking and second hand smoke undisputable and serious health hazards, of course."

Writer Donald Murphy already brought the problem you face by not discussing the "stated reason" for the law to your attention. His analysis couldn't be more accurate. I'd like to add even more to it because you did more than not address it, you flat out agree with the "stated reason." Might as well give last rites to any else of your well-meaning run at reason. The prohibitionists' dead babies will win every time versus poverty stricken employees. Employees that can no longer afford their rent IS a valid argument but cannot stand alone, especially when one stands your statement, "Of course secondhand smoke is indisputably a serious health hazard," next to it. Of course?? Indisputable??

Which makes what I most wanted to add this:

American Council on Science & Health - Dec. 12, 2002 - Mayor Bloomberg Exaggerates Secondhand Smoke Risk

"Who exactly are these 1,000 New Yorkers whose deaths Mayor Bloomberg claims will be prevented by his legislation?

"If, as we suspect, he is referring to deaths caused by exposure to secondhand smoke in restaurants and bars, the estimate of 1,000 deaths prevented is patently absurd... There is no evidence that any New Yorker ? patron or employee ? has ever died as a result of exposure to smoke in a bar or restaurant.

"The link between secondhand smoke and premature death... is a real stretch."

Saying "of course" to the secondhand smoke scare is not only disputable but it earns all other good intentioned objections to smoking bans its own DOA tag.
07.12.2004 | Audrey Silk
In the interest of better defining "smoke-related health hazards," I offer the following information from a recently-published report.

The effects of smoking and second-hand smoke on our society are staggering, obviously, yet we (as a society) seem unwilling to support measures that might lead to societal change in this area.

Is it more important to lobby for "equal access to bars" or to support legislation that might lesson the impact of 440,000 people dying each year from smoke-related diseases?

No matter which side of the argument you are on, I doubt the "bar industry" has the lobbying power of the health care industry, and I can't imagine the liquor industry risking the public relations in siding with them on this issue.

Diseases Now Attributed to Smoking:

- acute myeloid leukemia
- cancer of the cervix
- cancer of the kidney
- cancer of the pancreas
- cancer of the stomach
- cancer of the bladder
- cancer of the esophagus
- cancer of the larynx
- cancer of the lung
- cancer of the mouth
- cancer of the throat
- chronic lung disease
- chronic heart disease
- chronic cardiovascular disease
- abdominal aortic aneurysm
- reproductive problems
- cataracts
- periodontitis
- pneumonia


- 440,000 people die from smoking-related diseases each year.
- 12 million people have died from from smoking-related diseases in the past 40 years.
- annual cost to nation: $75 billion
- annual loss of productivity in dollars: $82 billion
- smokers die 13-14 years before non-smokers
07.12.2004 | Robert Blackford
By what right does the City of New York prohibit smoking in private establishments? The smoking 'law' clearly violates the Fifth Amendment prohibition against the taking of private property without just compensation. Private property is the only moral way to solve this kind of problem.Go back to your roots, America. Go back to the Constitution.
07.26.2004 | Tim
Following this kind of legislation to its logical conclusion, arguments can be made limiting the use of automobiles, at least in metropolitan areas. What is a health risk? Living. Why do you think we smoke? Why do we live in an unhealthy city in the first place? We're trying to kill ourselves. People who wish to live should get out.
08.1.2004 | SHANA BRADY
Hi, Dave from NY here. The law's not a problem- I just have friends over my apartment, and we go out to bars less. I really don't care to be stigmatized by having to stand out in the cold. When I do go out, we usually only stay a short time and go back to someone's house.

BTW, why are all stats quoted by Non-Smoking Advocates for both restaraunt and bar, and not just Bar Only?
01.10.2005 | Dave
Hey Dave, I'm from the great messed up Mid-west.

I think the reason those stats are quoted from both bar and restaurants are the same reason all self-interest groups quote particular stats.

Let's say, someone has one beer and is walking accross the street and someone who's driving while talking on a cell-phone hits them.

Even though it isn't the pedestrians fault, the fact that he had one beer, makes a self-interest group like MADD happy, because they can now consider it an alchohol-related accident and use it to further their cause.

I think it's obvious a bars business will go down with a smoking prohibition...but adding in the restaurant stats will, in their case, hopefully show everyone how great their idea that's been shoved down everyone's throat is.
02.10.2005 | Sammi Curr
I have breast cancer, but can I say it came from second hand smoke maybe or maybe not I don't know, but I believe that the business owners and workers should not be blame for something that's out of their hand. Also, what if we start banning the stuff in which they inject the chicken and cow's with to make them grow fast to keep up with the market demand of the consumer, then you wouldn't have anything to eat because the anti- whatever will say you can't eat this because you might die, the key word might. Now, don't get me wrong, but yes smoking is bad for your health all on can do is inform a person of the risk, its the same has you wanting someone to except Jesus if they don't you stop talking to them because they are not a good person. I believe, before you get on the band wagon to fully investigate the issues on both side, because not only are you ban smoking, but your are banning the very thing we hold so dear that's freedom to choose. I believe we are one step away for the Berlin Wall. If only the writers of the Consitution could see the mess we have created they would be so asham. Have A Bless Day Tery
08.24.2006 | Terry Williams

Funny that 7 years later cities and counties start banning again - this time it is all about ecigs - electronic smoking devices.

04.23.2011 | Jen

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