New York City residents may be breathing easier since the smoking ban went into effect on March 30, but it seems disgruntled smokers and bar owners are fuming. The ban, which was signed into law by Mayor Bloomberg in December 2002, prohibits smoking in almost any indoor workplace, including bars, restaurants, offices and nightclubs. Its designed to protect employees of more than 13,000 restaurants and bars throughout NYC and, according to lawmakers who support the ban, to minimize the number of deaths associated with smoking related diseases. But while some celebrate, othersmostly business ownersare mourning the loss of commerce they feel is inevitable.
"Its hard. Im going to have trouble telling my friends who have been coming here for four years not to smoke. They spend all their money here and now I have to ask them to stop spending their money here," said Kostas Matsias, owner of Nyxterides Cafe on Ditmars Boulevard. "By making people not smoke, theyre also stopping them from drinking coffee in here. they wont come in period. Now look at me. My place is empty."
No one can claim they didnt see it coming. To prepare business owners, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) sent out more than 25,000 copies of information describing the 2002 Smoke-Free Air Act including how to comply with the new law, the penalties for non-compliance, and the rare exceptions to the ban such as smoke shops and tobacco lounges. To be exempt, a lounge would have to earn at least 10% of its income from tobacco products and no more than 60% of their income from alcohol. Other exemptions include owner-operated bars, non-profit organizations and no more than 25% of any outdoor dining areas with no roof or ceiling.
On March 26, Gov. George Pataki signed an even tougher state-wide ban outlawing smoking in any business in New York State. Under the city law, bar owners could build smoking lounges to accommodate puffers, providing those rooms are completely closed, have a separate ventilation system and keep smoke from entering the main part of the establishment. These rooms, which employees would be barred from entering, were to have been legal until 2006.
But under the new state law, New York will join California and Delaware in relegating lighting up to private homes, cars, cigar bars registered before 2001 and the streets. In June, even the specially designed smoking lounges will be sporting the NO SMOKING signs, or restaurant and bar owners will face the penalty. Claire Fitzgerald, manager of Maggie Mays, a bar in Bayside, doesnt agree with the repercussions of smoking falling on business owners.
"This is going to hurt business. There were no compromises made where tons of compromises could have been made. The smoker should get a fine. If Im driving and talking on a cell phone, who gets the fine? The car manufacturer? No, its the driver," she said.
To comply with the 2002 Smoke-Free Air Act, workplaces must post NO SMOKING signs at all entrances, remove all ashtrays from the premises and request that any person smoking take it outside. During the month of April, the DOHMH will issue inspection reports, warnings, and educate employees at workplaces and public places. Beginning on May 1, the department will begin issuing Notices of Violation to those businesses found not to be in compliance with the new law. First time violators will be subject to fines ranging from $200 to $400, with fines as high as $2,000 for third violations. Repeat offenders will be in danger of suspension or revocation of their restaurant and bar licenses.
One problem with the brunt of culpability for illegal smoking falling to restaurant and bar owners is how to police customers at all times.
"I think its grossly unjust. The problem is in the enforcement," said Joe Donovan, owner of Donovans in Bayside, "Were collectors and enforcers for the government. How do I handle it when a customer tells me Ill smoke if I want? Will the government support me if I forcibly remove them?"
People in favor of the days-old law may be seeing changes shortly. Several smoking-cessation programs have reported an increase in calls from people wanting to quit. Whether or not the smoking ban will be a strong enough motivator to compel people to quit permanently remains to be seen. Approximately 50% of all smokers who quit relapse within six months. But surprisingly, not all smokers are opposed to the ban.
Michael Cane, a patron of Monahans in Bayside who chose to step outside to indulge, said, "Personally, I think its a good thing. Its an overall negative habit that affects everyone. It imposes on other people."
But Ilir Lipe, a patron of Nyxterides Cafe, was nonplussed.
"Why dont they let the owner put a sign saying Smoking Allowed?" he wondered. Then people who dont want to smoke wont come in. I dont understand it."