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Bloomberg's Kind of Town: Smoke-Free N.Y.

Mayor favors ban at all clubs, eateries. Not all agree. 'We're going to fight,' one barman says.

October 27, 2002|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Where there's smoke, there's political fire.

"You've got to be stupid, really dumb to smoke," said New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is trying to pass one of the nation's toughest anti-smoking laws, a measure that would ban the practice in all bars and restaurants.

Ciaran Staunton, who owns O'Neill's bar in Manhattan, is equally blunt about the mayor. "His law would put me out of business," Staunton said on a chilly afternoon as patrons puffed away and knocked back pints of Guinness. "We're going to fight him with every weapon we've got."

The lines have been drawn in New York's great smoking war, and a measure that looked like it might be approved quickly by the City Council several weeks ago is now mired in a nasty political fight, pitting Bloomberg against a potent coalition of tobacco lobbyists and bar and restaurant owners.

Hailed by public-health advocates for his tough stand against secondhand smoke in the workplace, the mayor is colliding with a deeply ingrained social tradition here: the right to drink and smoke in public places.

Under current city ordinance, approved in 1995, smoking is banned in office buildings and in restaurants seating more than 35 customers. The proposed measure would cover all bars, restaurants, outdoor cafes, private clubs and office buildings, affecting an additional 13,000 establishments.

As the City Council debates the measure, which is similar to a law adopted by California in 1994 and one also on the books in Delaware, national advocates on both sides are taking notice. If New York passes the proposal, some believe, it could set off a domino effect.

Neighboring Nassau County recently passed a similar measure, and Suffolk and Westchester counties also are considering such a law. If tough regulations are approved in all four jurisdictions, public smoking would be severely regulated in the nation's largest metropolitan area.

"California is seen by millions as a cutting-edge place, filled with concerns about health, or health-care nuts, depending on your views," said John Banzhaf, who heads the Washington-based Action for Smoking and Health, or ASH, one of the nation's oldest anti-smoking organizations.

"But nobody ever accused New York of being filled with people concerned about their health," he said. "It's a place where neighborhood bars are a huge blue-collar tradition, and if New York can pass such a law, people around the country might say, 'Hmm, maybe we can do it too.' "

This is a city, after all, where some taverns date to the 18th century, and steakhouses are filled with cigar-puffing aficionados. Neighborhood bars aren't simply businesses, they're gathering places for locals, sponsors of youth sports teams and regular participants in charity drives.

Staunton says he would lose 20% of his business if people could no longer smoke in his bar. But Bloomberg has framed the debate as a workplace health issue, saying people shouldn't contract cancer from secondhand smoke on the job.

"If you want to kill yourself, go ahead and do it," he told City Council members in testimony this month. "But you don't have a right to kill others. We're trying to protect workers."

During a contentious City Council hearing, Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden braved catcalls as he discussed the effect of secondhand smoke. He said the average New York bartender breathes as much air pollution during one minute in a smoke-filled room as a pedestrian standing in the Holland Tunnel would in 60 minutes at rush hour.

Bloomberg has swayed many council members with this argument, but some critics see it as one more example of a zealous political style that has the mayor crusading against noise, traffic congestion and other quality-of-life offenses with little regard for dissenters.

City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, for example, has been slow to support Bloomberg's bill, hinting that a modified version might garner the 26 votes needed to pass a measure in the 51-member council. Other council members may be poised to swap votes for legislative favors in a year when the city is facing an unprecedented $5-billion budget deficit.

"We're hurting fiscally," said Frankie Pellegrino, owner of Baldoria's, a stylish Midtown restaurant. "And this is the mayor's big issue?"

"The food and entertainment business took a huge hit after 9 / 11, and business is nowhere near back to the levels it was," he said, having a smoke at the upstairs bar. "And frankly, I think I'd just as soon pay the fines for violating this law, if it's enacted. I can't tell people not to enjoy themselves."

Many restaurant owners have lined up behind Bloomberg's proposal, noting that an estimated 56% of the city's dining establishments already ban smoking. The opposition comes mainly from businesses that offer special smoking areas in bars, arguing that the existing city law is sufficient.

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