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Publicans liken smoking ban to Prohibition

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

In the large function room, a gold plated sign read: “No smoking permitted. Secondhand smoke can be harmful to your health.”
Whatever the evils of smoking, Irish bar and restaurant owners have been saying that a Bloomberg blanket ban would be bad for business and would create public order issues for the city. If smokers were forced to gather on the sidewalk outside to smoke a cigarette, there will be public order issues, they have said.
For the first time since they started organizing against the ban, the group of owners, led by the United Restaurant and Liquor Dealers association, seemed a significant force ready to take on city council members in favor of the ban on smoking.
Ignorance was a factor with many council members, said some bar owners. Several pointed out that their council members had told them that had “never sat foot in a bar in their lives” and therefore “do not understand the bar business.”
One owner, Gene McKenna, compared the ban to the prohibition of the 1920s and cajoled the group, “you come at [the politicians] with both fists and you’re an awesome thing. . . . This was an Irish town and no one ever thought prohibition would happen. But it happened. And this is a new, limited prohibition, but a prohibition nonetheless.”
Bar owners then discussed the best ways to tackle the ban and many agreed that to date, council members were unmoved by any economic argument, but were concerned with quality of life and public order issues.
“They have no concern about how hard you have to hustle to run a bar business,” said Joe Gillespie of P.J. Horgan’s bar across Queens Boulevard from Side Tracks restaurant.
John Creggan, owner of Side Tracks, pointed out to his listeners that city council members in Queens had told him that “nobody is calling” to condemn the ban on smoking, rather, the pile of letters on her desk is supportive of the ban.
“It is very hard to get people motivated,” he said.
“The main brunt of the campaign is us,” said Brian Rohan, who spoke for the URLD. “Veterans groups are not motivated, Knights of Columbus are not motivated, not even the press is with us.
“[Council members] think a bar is just a dirty room where people smoke and drink. They don’t realize that it’s where we socialize, do business, raise money for good causes.”
Rohan asked the crowd to thank council member Dennis Gallagher, who, though a Republican like the mayor, had affirmed that he would vote against the ban.
Ciaran Staunton of O’Neill’s in Manhattan urged the owners to get angry with the politicians. He said he believed that the mayor had lost support on the ban, from 22 affirmed votes to “maybe 19.”
“We are not peeing against the wind here,” he said.
Staunton told the crowd that the ban was not a done deal and that at very least a compromise law could be forced through instead.
Joe Gillespie told the crowd: “This is not a health issue. The mayor’s figures are totally bogus. Where is the evidence that secondhand smoke is harmful?”
He added that the “quality-of-life issue works in our favor,” that elected representatives were most concerned about the effects of smokers standing outside bars smoking on littering, noise pollution and public order.
John McGuire, from Smith’s bar on Manhattan’s West Side, told the crowd, “[The council members] are looking for a way to get out of this without a total ban.”
Staunton said that owners have to tell council members that “the ban is going to take bread off our tables, that it will put us out of business and that I am not going to stand for it. Get mad with them.”
Referring to one pro-ban council member, Peter Vallone Jr., he said, “Talk to people, customers, and put up signs asking, ‘Why is Peter Vallone Jr. trying to put me out of business?’ “
The group also discussed how to pay for further campaigning against the band. Staunton said that it might cost each owner $500 to help the URLD hire a lobbying firm to promote the cause, but that “the first fine will be more than $500.”
Said Gene McKenna: “If you put one day’s receipts into this, it will be stopped.”
Andy Breslin, who works at the Red Lion bar on Bleecker Street, said that he had recently attended a meeting of the Bleecker Merchants and Residents Association, which had debated the smoking ban and voted 24-4 against it, with residents particularly concerned about nose and public order issues.
Council member Alan Gerson was there as well, Breslin continued, and was shocked by the opposition to the ban, especially as he [Gerson] is a cosponsor of it.
Breslin reckoned that every area of the city would have similar community groups that could be used to pressure council members with a show of force.
After several speeches, the URLD’s Rohan handed out cards and sheets of information that allowed each person in the bar to locate the name and number of their council member, although Joe Gillespie reminded his listeners, “I have no qualms about calling every council member in the city.”
Added McKenna, “In this council, there are a hell of a lot of members who by cultural inclination or orientation, have no familiarity with what we do.”

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