Fields holds forum on smoking law’s impacts


By Megha Bahree

What’s more important — to breathe easily and avoid cancer and respiratory problems; or be able to stay in business and earn a living? This debate arose last week when Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields called a hearing to assess the impact of the smoking ban that was imposed on New York City six months ago.

The three main issues raised revolved around the impact of the ban on the health of patrons and employees, the economic impact on bars and restaurants and the effects on quality of life of New York City residents.

A June 23 Zogby International poll, found New Yorkers favor comprehensive smoke-free workplace legislation by a margin 3 to 1. The poll further stated that 86 percent of New Yorkers said they were patronizing smoke-free bars the same amount or more since the law went into effect March 30.

However, bar and club owners tell a different story. They claim an increase in expenses from having to hire more security for crowd control on the streets, in addition to the fact that customers take twice as long over the same drinks because they are spending half their time outside smoking.

For Michelle Dell, owner of the two Hogs & Heifers saloons on W. 13th St. in the Meat Market and on the Upper East Side, the slump in business is forcing her to decide if she should dismiss an employee who has three children who will be forced to go without health insurance because he’ll no longer have an income, or her bartender who needs his job to pay his way through college, or her manager who has been with her since she opened the bar.

Melissa O’Donnel, owner of Salt Bar on Clinton St. on the Lower East Side, has already taken some steps to make ends meet. After her income dipped by 25 percent she had to lay off one of her five employees and she can no longer afford to pay her manager, who nevertheless continues to work with her “because he knows I can’t run the place by myself,” she said. On the other hand, O’Donnel owns Salt, a smoke-free restaurant in Soho, which, unlike her bar, hasn’t been affected by the ban.

“The nightlife industry of New York City employs 30,000 people and has a $10 billion economic impact,” said David Rabin, president of the New York Nightlife Association and owner of Lotus Club and Union Bar. “Bars and clubs form less than 20 percent of the New York City nightlife. Our employees represent less than one percent of [this 30,000], yet they are affected 99 percent by this ban.”

Rabin insisted that though summer jobs increase because of the increase in sidewalk café business, a month-by-month comparison to last summer shows a decline this summer.

Nevertheless, there has been an overall increase in business for the entire quarter, both bar owners and supporters of the law agreed.

Countering the city’s claims, bar and club owners who testified said they have not noticed a new nonsmoking clientele in their businesses since the ban went into effect.

But John Lofaso, a bartender at Conservatory Café at the Mayflower Hotel, is more concerned about his health rather than the dips or increases in bar owners’ incomes. A bartender since 1985 when he was 22, this is the first time that his eyes don’t burn and he doesn’t have to wake up every morning with congestion, he said. “This is the first allergy season that I haven’t had to take Claritin,” he told Fields. Now, he doesn’t feel winded when he walks up a hill to his apartment, he said. “I have no desire to go back to a smoke environment,” he said.

Also testifying on behalf of the new law was Dr. Nancy Miller, assistant commissioner for tobacco control at the city’s Department of Health.

The other issue is the impact on the quality of life for New York City residents, since the smokers now end up on the streets. “Sidewalks have become an extension of the bars,” Kyle Merker, chairperson of Community Board 5, said. “There’s a regular nightly mayhem and residents are now complaining of restaurants they have never complained of before.” Moreover, he said, the smokers on the streets affect thousands of residents, especially in a place like Manhattan where businesses and residences coexist.

“I spend most of my time acting like a bouncer,” concurred O’Donnel. “People come to my bar as a respite from their world and all they get is nagging.” She has to police her customers and stop them from taking their drinks out on the streets or even smoking there because it would disturb her neighbors.

Bar owners are now advocating the use of indoor air filters. But representatives of the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, speaking in support of the ban, said that cigarette smoke is a class A carcinogen, meaning there is no safe level of exposure or filtration technology that can reduce it.

Bar owners are seeking an amendment to the new workplace antismoking law. They want to return to the way the law used to be when if a premises made 60 percent of its profit from alcohol sales, smoking was permitted. “The ’95 law was working. No one was complaining,” Rabin said. “We are ready to install filtration devices at our own cost and if any of my employees say that they don’t want to work in a smoky environment then I will look everywhere for another place for them to work in…. Today is only the second inning in our battle.” The bar and club owners said it should be voluntary on the owners’ part whether a place allows smoking or not.

Fields mainly listened to the testimony, but several times had to intervene to defuse tensions between the bar owners and the antismoking advocates.