28 Days of Rehab
Okay, it has finally happened. New York City has
been living smoke free for almost a whole month. Well, kind of anyway.
After Bloomberg's anti-smoking ban took effect March 30, 2003, most
bars and restaurants have asked their smoking patronage to kindly
step outside. We say most, because right before the ban began, the
City's department of health put a 30-day stay into place. The purpose
of the stay was to have a period of adjustment, whereby bar owners
and bartenders could become familiar with the new laws and educate
their patrons as well. Bars were safe because only warnings, not
fines, were handed out for violations.
"The 30-days didn't matter to me," said
Harold Kramer, owner of the Raven
Café, a neighborhood bar on the corner of 12th
Street and Avenue A in the East Village of New York City. "The
ban is still going into place, and as much as I hate it, I figured
I may as well get my customers used to it sooner rather than later."
The motivation behind the smoking ban was to protect
employees from breathing in dangerous second-hand smoke. In our
to Exhale" coverage, we showed how studies cited in the
documents on which the medical risks are based were inconclusive.
"This goes way beyond a violation of civil
liberties," said Patrick Carroll, president and chief executive
Tobacco Company. "It's become oppression of the
majority. There must be some level of pollutants allowed in any
air situation, otherwise all cars and industrial smoke stacks would
be illegal too."
Carroll's company sponsors an advocacy group called
to Smoke Coalition. He spends about five percent of his
annual budget on promoting the organization's web site, which is
a simple form page that serves to collect signatures for a petition.
The goal is to collect 60,000 names, Carroll said, which will allow
the coalition to include a referendum on the ballot next election
calling to repeal the current smoking ban.
Right now, Carroll said he's collected about 5,000
names. And, once he hits the 10,000 mark, he will organize a telecommunications
protest modeled after the group Moveon.org,
who protested the war and was able to cause a cyber gridlock in
Washington D.C. for a few hours.
"Smokers are a hard group to motivate physically,"
Carroll said. "The night the ban went into effect, only about
30 people showed up outside Bloomberg's house. That's not too many.
Most smokers feel kind of guilty protesting because there are bigger
issues in the world today or because they know it's bad for them.
But they don't realize it's about much more than smoking, it's about
their rights being taken away from them too. Before you know it,
beer and alcohol will be next."
Evolution of a Movement
But Carroll and groups like his are a minority.
Now that the ban is in place, the movement that once stood to fight
the law is transforming into a movement that defines a subculture,
one based on a new way of behaving. Even C.L.A.S.H.,
who once rallied against the ban, has turned its attention to encouraging
people to go to New Jersey pubs. Smoking hasn't been snuffed out
of society. Rather, it's just being done in a different way.
In the East Village, when you walk through the
streets on a warm spring evening, mixed with the smell of cherry
blossoms blooming and weeping willows budding is the smell of cigarette
smoke wafting through air. You hear loud bellows of drunk patrons
and dodge their staggering stumbles as you try to pass. But some
bars suspiciously have clear sidewalks. In the inner smoker rings,
these bars have become known as "smokeeasies." They are
taking a risk, but as during Prohibition, keeping citizens from
doing what they feel is a right naturally leads to underground activity.
These establishments have different reasons and strategies for allowing
smokers to continue puffing indoors.
Because the stay ends on May 1, 2003, for fear being targeted for
their comments, those bars that will continue to allow smoking in
defiance of the law have requested to be kept anonymous.
"I figure the amount of cash I'd lose offsets
how much the fine would cost me if I ever got one," one owner
said. "Plus, I could even get more business if I can attract
the crowds who don't want to go to a bar where they can't smoke."
Another owner said that she has taken up a collection
from her patrons. She puts the money into a fund that will be used
to pay any fine she may receive.
Some feel this process is normal in a capitalistic
society and that a shakeout is what was meant to happen. The majority
of people in the city are non-smokers, one owner noted. If the city
doesn't require businesses to ban smoking, then of course, none
of them would for fear of losing business. But, because the City
ban the act, a majority of business will comply and many will see
that their bottom lines are not affected. But, an unspoken few will
still allow smoking and all populations will eventually be happy:
the majority of people who don't smoke, then the subculture that
"It will be like marijuana in Amsterdam,"
one smokeasy bartender said. "It's illegal, but there are still
special cafes that everyone knows about."
But, beside the smokeasy concept, there are some
bars and restaurants in the city where you can puff away without
the guilt that you may be putting the owner in financial jeopardy.
Cigar and hookah, or water pipe, establishments that can prove they
receive at least 10 percent of their gross annual revenue from tobacco
sales are exempt from the smoking ban. This also applies to businesses
that were already in existence as such before December 31, 2001,
according to one lucky bar owner.
"We have to apply for exemption from the
ban and we can continue to operate assuming we're exempt while our
request is being processed," said Mark Osborne, owner of Kush,
a bar that offers hookahs and flavored tobacco in the Lower East
Side. Osborne even suggested that bars not eligible for exemption
could file for it anyway to buy themselves more smoking time. However,
he fears his fortunate status could soon be undermined. The recently
passed New York State smoking ban legislation, which is more stringent
than the City's, will go into effect July 24, 2003.
"What usually happens is that wherever the
City and State laws differ, the stricter one will be the rule,"
said an official of the New York City Department of Health and Mental
It seems that once the State legislation comes
to town, bar owners that think they're exempt might have a shock
in store for them. Bar owners and managers have already received
rude awakenings during the month-long stay. Visits from health inspectors
have noted the ban goes far beyond what's anticipated and beyond
what's rational for the ban itself.
"I can't believe this! I understand no smoking
in the bar, but this guy said people couldn't smoke in the back
garden or in the seating area in front of the bar. I said, 'People
aren't allowed to smoke outside?' and he said yeah," exclaimed
one East Village bar manager who wishes to remain anonymous. She
was visited by a health inspector who told her the bar could not
appear to condone smoking in any way, even smoking outside by placing
ashtrays or buckets for butts on the sidewalk in front of the bar.
This was news to her because she thought if separate smoking rooms
were permitted, then surely an open-air garden of sidewalk seating
area would be safe. But the law initially passed by the City Council
seemingly has morphed and is turning New York City into even more
of a police state than it was under former mayor Rudolf Giuliani,
"Bloomberg's reason for the ban was to protect
the health of bar and restaurant workers, but he's trying to close
the city's budget deficit by fining the hell out of us," said
the same bar manager as above. Her bar already has been given one
warning, and the inspector told her he'd give her a fine the next
time: $500 for each person caught smoking, even if the incident
were to happen before the end of the stay.
She also mentioned that many businesses are renewing
or applying for sidewalk café licenses specifically because
of the smoking ban, but that has become a ridiculous process. What
used to cost $2000 is now upwards of $10,000, she said of the sidewalk
"How are we supposed to stay in business?"
She said. "And for each bar that closes at least 25 people
are left jobless. And in this economy? Forget it."
Bars like hers that are trying to stay in compliance
with the law are upset by other bar owners who aren't because they
feel it creates an unfair playing field. The Raven's customer base
consists of about 80 percent smokers, said owner Harold Kramer.
But early on, he decided to comply with the law. To accommodate
his smoker base and to not lose their business, he put a brand new
bench outside and an ashtray to keep the litter off the sidewalk
for which, under the City's Quality of Life Act, he can be fined.
That act states that smokers must be at least six feet away from
the establishments doors and that the owner is responsible for keeping
the sidewalk free of litter.
Police officials have not updated aggregate numbers
for noise violations through March and April, 2003 yet. Their numbers
stop at March 3, 2003, a week before the new 311 program was launched.
The 311 program is a new non-emergency hotline for people to report
"quality of life" complaints like potholes and noise.
It's meant to lighten the load and make the response time for 911
calls much faster.
"Even if I could get you the numbers you
wouldn't be able to draw any parallels between any increase in noise
violations and the smoking ban because of the 311 system,"
said a police official from the office of the deputy commissioner
of public information.
The coordination of launching this system with
the smoking ban does not surprise Carroll.
"This whole thing has been carefully planned.
Bloomberg may not care about our personal freedoms, but he's definitely
a smart guy," Carroll said. "Why do you think he waited
until it was nice out too? It will be easier for people to change
their lifestyles if it's not freezing or raining outside."
But, with change always comes conflict. And one
thing that April has shown us is that stay or no stay, it's not
always easy to enforce a law that drastically changes a norm or
"Drinking and smoking go hand in hand,"
said Eric Pagan, a bouncer at the Raven Café. "I'm sure
there will be some confrontations."
Dana Blake, also known as "Shazam,"
bouncer at Guernica, a popular lounge in Alphabet city found out
the drastic possibilities of a confrontation on April 13, 2003 when
he was stabbed in the femoral artery and died hours after asking
a patron who refused to put out his cigarette to leave.
As the story goes, Guernica was entertaining a
large Asian party in the basement. After repeatedly asking a pair
of brother's, Jonathan and Chin Chan, to put out their cigarettes,
Shazam began to "bounce" them. He allegedly picked up
Jonathan by the neck and started to carry him up the stairs. Jonathan's
sister, Ngan Ling, jumped on Shazam's back and a scuffle ensued.
At one point, Shazam collapsed in a pool of his own blood. The Chan
brothers and their sister fell out onto the street.
Travis Keyes, a part owner and waiter at B3s,
a restaurant/bar next door to Guernica saw the action unfold.
"There was a large bald Asian man outside
my door on the corner of Avenue B and Third Street," Keyes
said. "He had blood on him and he was surrounded by a group
of his friends who were holding him back. He seemed like he was
trying to fight his way back to Guernica. He was yelling down the
street to another bouncer saying, 'See that, see that, this could
happen to you.'"
Keyes then went outside and heard that Shazam
had been stabbed. He said the bigger brother started running down
Third Street toward Avenue D. He and a detective from the 9th Precinct
chased him down and "controlled him."
Keyes said "the Chans were probably trying
to inflict pain, but I don't think they were trying to kill Shazam.
It's not like they ran off right away. The big bald one was even
trying to go back. Plus, we didn't have to track them, we just got
Shortly after the Chan's were brought in, they
were released from custody due to lack of evidence. After hearing
about it, Keyes said he felt "defeated," especially after
chasing down the guy.
"I'm not surprised the men were released,"
Keyes said, "Bloomberg will probably sweep this one under the
But later it was found that the Chans hadn't stabbed
Dana Blake, and that another man at the party, who was trained in
the martial arts, inflicted the fatal wound. Isaias Umali of Jamaica,
Queens confessed to police after they received a tip. Umali was
in the hospital, apparently recovering from self-inflicted wounds
stemming from guilt over the incident.
At a fundraiser for Blake's funeral held at Guernica
on April 17th, thousands of dollars were raised and friends and
colleagues remembered the bouncer fondly. Some were also angry.
"I think it's bullshit what happened to him,
over something so stupid," said another bouncer at the club
who wished to remain anonymous. A bouncer for three years, he said
danger goes with his job, but after Blake's murder, he needs to
more aware. Enforcing the ban is what ultimately led to Blake's
death, and it's this new aspect of club control that has bar owners
nervous about future scuffles.
Outraged by Blake's murder, Kramer sent an email
right away with an I-told-you-so tone to City Hall. Kramer has been
critical of the burden the ban places on the bar staff to enforce
the law, and for him, this fatal confrontation is the manifest of
his worst fears.
Keyes called a staff meeting and told his workers
"from now on, if any refuses to put out a cigarette, walk away
and call the police," Keyes said. "At least then there
will be a record that we tried to enforce it. If they still want
to give us a fine after that, well, that's the best we can do. But
no amount of money is worth a human life."
The trickiest thing about the ban, aside from
looming hefty fines, is how those tickets will be given. Bloomberg
has hired 25 inspectors to police the city's bars an restaurants,
but it seems hardly possible for 25 workers to enforce a ban affecting
thousands of establishments. In California, smokeasies cropped up
and people who wanted to smoke and drink simultaneously knew where
to go; those who didn't had their smoke-free spots as well, according
to Felicia Williams, who used to live on the west coast.
Though few inspectors may pose little threat,
bar owners still fear those fines, which could do more than inflict
financial calamity on their businesses. Various permits they operate
under could also be revoked for repeat offenders, said Consumer
Affairs documents, literally putting them out of business. And Bloomberg's
new 311 hotline makes it easier for citizens who wholeheartedly
support the ban to bust bars and restaurants in violation.
Now that the month-long stay on fines is ending,
and businesses as well as patrons have been "reeducated,"
April will give way to a hot and hot-tempered May, where the ban's
enforcement and affect on businesses will really be tested. Bartenders
are wary of policing patrons, cops say it's not their job either,
and those 25 health inspectors must be saints to stay clear of what
is sure to be attempts at palm-greasing. Reflecting on history,
not only did Prohibition not work, it gave rise to crime and corruption.
And if it's a budget gap Bloomberg wants
to fill, Kramer said, "putting the businesses that bring people
into the city out of business is not the way to do it."