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Bar owners lash out at smoking curbs

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Patrick Markey

A war of words over stricter smoking laws has pitted a group of New York Irish bar owners against the anti-tobacco lobby as they vie for the attention of politicians who could vote to change the city’s current legislation.

For supporters of tougher laws on smoking in public places, a crackdown means a healthier city, one that would benefit not take away from small business owners. But for the bar and restaurant owners, who could be included in any new legislation, harsher bans threaten to damage their livelihood and drive away potential customers.

That clash between health and commerce spilled over into City Hall last week as hundreds of spectators, including many Irish business leaders, turned up for the City Council’s oversight hearing on the current smoking law.

"The current law, notwithstanding some flaws, has worked," said Ciaran Staunton, who runs O’Neill’s in Manhattan and who is leading the bar owners’ campaign. "People who want a non-smoking restaurant can now go to one. People who want to go to a small bar or restaurant and smoke with their dinner or while having a drink can do so."

The current smoking law, the 1995 Smoke Free Air Act, bans smoking in most public places, but exempts bars, private offices and restaurants with fewer than 35 seats. City publicans fear that a complete smoking ban would drive customers away, leaving them with reduced income.

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City Councilmember Walter McCaffrey, who represents the Queens community, said the current legislation was a compromise between the commercial and health concerns over smoking.

"The case was not made that we should change the status quo. When the legislation was passed it was clearly stated that this was a compromise, a balance was struck," he said.

But the anti-smoking lobby dismissed the bar owners’ economic arguments as irrelevant in the face of the evidence that smoking creates an unhealthy environment.

"The issue is whether second-hand smoke causes cancer," said Joe Cherner, chair of the Coalition for a Smoke Free New York. "If the bar owners believe that, they would not want to expose their employees.

"No one should have to breath something that causes cancer in their workplace. People prefer smoke-free air and so a smoke-free bar would get more business than one with smoke."

On Thursday, adding his political clout to the anti-smoking argument, an official from City Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s office testified that Hevesi supported a total ban on smoking in public places, including within 25 feet of office entrances.

"Smoke in these entrances fills the air and takes a long time to dissipate, creating an unhealthy environment," testified Edward Fitzpatrick, executive deputy comptroller.

But a spokesman for Hevesi’s office said Monday that the comptroller does not want to "shut the door" on bar owners who make a significant contribution to the city’s economy. The comptroller plans to meet with a groups of city bar owners on Thursday for discussions.

"We’re open to talking to the tavern owners. Some good ideas might come out of the meeting," the spokesman said.

Bar owners remain wary of new legislation, however. Although city officials said Thursday’s hearing was simply a review of the current law, bar owners say they feel it is the precursor to a new bill tightening the noose on the public space available for smokers.

"I have no doubt in my mind that this is a forerunner to a bill being produced," Staunton said.

But Councilmember Victor Robles, who is chair of the council’s health committee, said no bill was currently before the committee. The review was simply to assess the current legislation and examine whether change was needed.

But, Robles said, the review was an ongoing process and elected officials listen to their constituents. It was a matter of making one’s voice heard, he said.

"Certain elements are aggressive enough, others sit back and say nothing," Robles said. "Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the oil."

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