Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The World's Loudest Cigarette: Six Years of the Smoking Ban

Six years ago this week, a smoking ban was imposed on bars, restaurants and other venues in New York City. While the atmosphere inside bars has improved and there are studies that suggest that there has been a significant improvement in the health of nightlife operators and patrons, there have also been secondary effects that threaten the health of the nightlife industry in general. The city has unintentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) created a situation that puts clubs at odds with local residents and ultimately threatens liquor licenses.


Before the election of Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York City, bars and clubs were bastions of smoking. Federal studies found that 61% of heavy alcohol users also smoked, often performing both acts simultaneously. The image entering a smoky bar and approaching a sexual interest by asking for a light were common in many venues in the city. Anyone who went into or worked in a bar accepted the concept that smokers would be there and that they would be able to smell the smoke on their clothes and in their hair long after they left the venue, whether they smoked or not. Back when the world was young and I worked in Webster Hall, I had to sneak outside several times a night for the chance to breathe fresh air. Cigarette smoke triggers my asthma, so for me working in the basement was like working in a burning building. It wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did, but a
hustler does what he has to do, especially when he’s starting out.

In 2002 after Bloomberg became mayor, one of the first things he pushed for was a ban on smoking in restaurants, bars and clubs. The debate leading up to the passage of the law was hotly contested on both sides. Groups that advocated the ban claimed that operators inside the clubs were the most vulnerable to the dangers of second hand smoke because they were exposed to it several hours a night for several nights per week. They claimed a ban would both improve the long term health of operators and improve nightlife business because it would attract people who didn’t smoke into the environment to spend money. Groups that came out against the ban did not deny the health benefits, but they did argue that there would be economic and social effects that the law did not take into account. They also claimed that there would be increased friction from the community because of the noise generated from patrons standing outside to smoke from 5 PM to 4 AM.

The Sound of Smoking

Some people think that a few people standing outside a venue will not substantially increase the level of street noise. But that concept only considers the smokers themselves. They don’t see that smokers, especially female smokers, provide a powerful incentive for groups of fanatics to hang out in front of a club, especially the ones who didn’t get into or got thrown out. In a twisted effort to get noticed and prove their superiority, these individuals will shout, get into fights, honk their horns if they are in their cars, or try to talk to girls from their cars and back up traffic behind them which causes other cars to blow their horns. This sad mating ritual cacophony will die down when the girls finish smoking and go back inside, but it will begin again when the next group of girls comes out of the club to take their place.

The relationship between street noise and smoking outside should not have come as a surprise to anyone involved in the development of the smoking ban since the NYNA informed city that the smoking ban would lead to noise complaints. But when operators requested the ability to hire Paid Detail officers to deal with the inevitable noise the result was the worst of all options. The smoking ban was put in place and the request for Paid Detail was rejected, allowing the smoking ban to become a major contributor of street noise. When street noise increases, 311 complaints from local residents increase. When complaints increase, local community boards can use those complaints to have a venue’s liquor license revoked. Without a liquor license, a bar or a club can’t compete in the market and is forced to close. There is a direct relationship between the smoking ban and the increase in noise complaints against clubs. As the ban enters its 6th year operators need to find a way to keep patrons healthy and stay opened.

Coping Strategies

Different venues use different tactics to deal with the ban. Any venue that has been built or renovated since 2003 could factor the law into their design. The ones that could afford it added heated courtyard lounges like Cielo, rooftop access like Above Allen or fire escape access like APT to give smokers access to the open air without putting them out on the street. Venues that don’t have that option rope off areas in front of the venue to separate the smokers who already made it past the velvet rope from the throngs still trying to get inside.

There are also growing instances of venues that do not rope off areas out front, or create special sections for them. Some operators have come to the conclusion openly or privately that it is
easier and more cost effective to simply break the law. Smoking in clubs reported to be on the rise in New York City, either because enforcement has dropped off, or because the fines are low enough that paying them costs less than complying with the law or getting noise complaints. While this minority of operators might not openly reject the law, they have come to the conclusion that the cost of paying the fine is less than the cost of erecting smoking areas or subjecting their liquor licenses to revocation based on noise complaints from smokers standing outside. Some solutions have worked better than others, but one thing the clubs won’t do is discourage smoking by their clientele since by some operator estimates, smokers account for 40% of patrons.

A More Viable Solution

There is an alternative that protects the health of patrons and operators, keeps noise levels down outside of venues and allows patrons to smoke all at the same time. There are air filtration systems on the market that have been approved by the Department of Health and are currently used by infectious disease wards in hospitals to clean the air. These systems reportedly are the size of a humidifier and one of them can keep 1,250 square feet of interior air cleaner than the air in Central Park, even if 60% of the people are smoking inside. The NYNA proposed that if a venue was primarily a bar, lounge or club and not a restaurant then they could have one filter installed for every 1,250 square feet of interior space and become exempt from the ban. This request was not included in the final version of the law.

The best options available for the industry are to continue to lobby officials on the state or and local level that patrons can smoke inside without health risks, through the use of technology like filtration units. They can also try and work with local community leaders and law enforcement to gain the power to control or reduce noise outside the venues through Paid Detail. Finally, they could work to sever the links between street noise and liquor licenses so that loud patrons don’t lead to closed venues. Whatever tactic operators decide to use they need to insure that the smoking ban isn’t harmful to nightlife health.

Have fun.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bloomberg is an idiot. By the way, that is a sexy picture!