By Stephen McKinley
In New York City you can take your pick from many an Irish bar where you can have a spot of lunch and a pint, perhaps and then, if you’re a smoker, push back your plate and light up a cigarette.
Not for much longer, if new anti-smoking legislation sponsored by the City Council speaker, Peter Vallone, is voted into law. Putting the issue of smoking in New York City firmly back on the agenda, Speaker Vallone told a press conference last week that the new law was "the final peg in making the city one of the cleanest and safest in the country."
The law, scheduled for its first hearing on March 1, would require stringent anti-smoking measures that some say could put many bars and restaurants out of business. It seeks to eliminate smoking in restaurants regardless of their size, or the distance separating dining rooms from bars. Current laws prohibit smoking in restaurants that seat more than 35 persons, except at the bar.
Some bar owners have described it as the "Californization’ of New York’s existing smoking laws, in reference to the strict rules that are already in place in California, making it almost impossible to smoke in any public space.
"This will seriously reduce business at the very least," said Des O’Brien, owner of the busy midtown restaurant and bar Langan’s. "Small neighborhood bars could also be heavily impacted." He added that New York’s massive overseas tourist trade could be affected, "particularly in an are like Times Square, where you have a lot of European tourists who smoke."
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Other bar owners agreed, and some expressed surprise at the proposal, given that, as O’Brien suggested, the current smoking laws have been an accepted compromise since 1995. One bar man on Second Avenue in the East Village, who asked to remain anonymous, asserted that people still had a right to smoke, and that outlawing smoking in this manner would certainly not stop people smoking.
The issue of a right to smoke was in turn attacked by an American Cancer Society spokesman, Dan Klotz. Members of that society stood with Vallone when he announced his proposed legislation at a press conference last week.
"People can smoke [if they want to]" said Klotz, "but they should not impose their health choice on non-smokers." Klotz also attacked the suggestion from publicans that the new anti-smoking legislation would harm the restaurant and bar industry in New York City. "The Zagat 2001 guide reported that 311 new restaurants opened here last year," he said. "That is a restaurant boom that will hardly diminish." He added that he had heard that Vallone’s proposal had the backing of most of the city council.
However, a source close to the City Council suggested that even if the bill was passed, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani would likely veto it. The mayor, who is an occasional cigar smoker, told the New York Times on Thursday that "the compromise that exists is the right one."
Restaurant consultant Anthony Tousi, who has worked with several new Irish bars in the city, said that the law would affect many establishments in the city, and suggested that regardless of the fate of the law and the possibility of a mayoral veto, publicans ought to use lobbying groups such as the National Restaurant Association.
Back at Langan’s in Times Square, O’Brien said that he had already heard of potential protests by bar owners. "We don’t need a government or city council running our bars against our will," he said. "If they want to stop smoking, the should go for the source, the tobacco companies."