By Harry Keaney
Bar and restaurant owners throughout New York City, many of them Irish, are about to be thrust into the front line of the tobacco war.
That’s because anti-smoking advocates are campaigning for sweeping changes in the law that would transform New York City bars into non-smoking areas.
The proposal is not as far-fetched as it would initially seem; California enacted a similar law in 1998. In Suffolk County, on Long Island, smoking in bars is allowed only in separately ventilated rooms.
"No one should be asked to breathe something that causes cancer in his or her work environment," Joe Cherner, president of Smoke-Free Educational Services, said. "It’s a workers’ rights issue."
But many Irish bar owners see their futures threatened. "It would effectively put most bars out of business," Ciarán Staunton, of O’Neill’s Bar on Third Avenue, said.
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The current law governing smoking in the city is the 1995 Smoke Free Air Act, which already prohibits smoking in most public places. But it exempts bars, restaurants with fewer than 35 seats and private offices.
Because these are the places that Cherner’s group is now targeting, bar owners are fearful those exemptions may be scrapped, particularly as the City Council Oversight Committee will hold a hearing on the 1995 law next Wednesday, Feb. 23. The meeting will start at 10 a.m. in City Hall.
Last September, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone met with anti-smoking advocates. Although a subsequent news report claimed the speaker wished to strengthen the 1995 Act, a spokeswoman for his office declined to be drawn into a discussion on his stand on the issue.
"It’s an oversight hearing on the Smoke Free Air Act, that’s all it is," the spokeswoman said. "It’s a review of current law; we review all our laws."
But anti-smoking advocates want more than a review.
"To us, the health of bartenders is just as important as that of doctors or reporters," said Cherner, who is also media chair of the Coalition for a Smoke-Free City. "Their health matters and shouldn’t be treated as if it didn’t mean anything."
But Staunton responded that people shouldn’t have to work where they don’t want to work.
As to the question of individual freedom, Cherner said, "A person has the right to smoke and do anything they want to their own bodies as long as you are only hurting yourself. But nobody should have the right to make somebody else sick."
He said the issue was not a personal-freedom issue, it was an employee rights issue, and the legislators would have to choose.
Staunton, however, said that the real victims would be bar and restaurant owners and their families, as well as bartenders and waitresses, who depended on the businesses for their livelihood.
"The anti-smoking lobby is not taking into consideration that this would put the future of these in jeopardy," Staunton said. He added that the City Council legislators would, in effect, be voting on their futures.
He said that if the proposed changes were implemented, it would have particularly severe consequences for bars and restaurant in border areas, such as Bronx-Yonkers. And, he added, commuter patrons who travel on Metro North Railroad might decide not to stop by bars in the vicinity of Grand Central Terminal, for example, preferring instead to just continue on their journey to Connecticut or Westchester.
"People who come in and want to relax, if they are smokers, they will not come in," said Tom Ryan, owner of Annie Moore’s bar, which is close to Grand Central.
He said the move to try to ban smoking would "affect business big-time in most of the Irish pubs."
Staunton also pointed out that there were already non-smoking restaurants.
"A lot of people realize there are people who want no-smoking when dining," he said, adding that, for example, his own bar, O’Neill’s, has a non-smoking area upstairs.
He said he felt the issue of smoking or non-smoking should be dictated by customer demand rather than through legislation.
"Business people will change as customers want it," he said.
"The choice should be left to business owners rather than driving the law down our throats," said Andy Breslin, owner of Sidetracks and Blooms in Queens and the Red Lion in Manhattan. He added that banning smoking would be "a tremendous hurt" and would put some bars and restaurants out of business.
Breslin is at present trying to arrange a meeting between a delegation of bar owners and Queens City Councilman Walter McCaffrey.
Derek Fitzgerald, a bartender in Mulligan’s on Madison Avenue, said that half of the restaurant where he works is smoke free. "People have a choice and I think that’s the way it should be," he said. He said that the non-smoking section at Mulligan’s was ventilated.
"A bar is the one place you expect to find smokers," another bartender told the Echo. "It doesn’t bother me, if it did I wouldn’t be working in a bar."
As might be expected, tobacco companies are also opposed to complete bans on smoking.
"We don’t believe a smoking ban is a reasonable solution," Tom Moran, spokesman for Philip Morris, told the Echo. "We believe business owners should be able to choose the smoking policy that best suits the needs of their businesses as well as the preferences of their customers and employees."
As regards any moves to change the law in New York City, Moran said, "We do not know what the City Council has planned and we will not know until we see a bill. We hope we won’t see a bill."
The proposals to strengthen the 1995 law will also be discussed at the next meeting of the United Restaurant & Liquor Dealers of Manhattan, which will take place on this Thursday, Feb. 17, from 3:30-5 p.m. at Dakota, 576 Third Ave., NYC.