October 22, 2002
By Walter Olson
The New York City Council still hasn't acted on Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to ban smoking from every saloon, pool hall and private club in the five boroughs. But if Gotham's columnists have anything to say about it, the forces of compulsory health may soon be facing their bottled Waterloo. The city's writers, a convivial group by nature, have greeted the idea with a hail of dead cats. At the Daily News, Denis Hamill calls the plan "nuts", and Sid Zion says it would turn New York into "Los Angeles East." Nonsmoking Times Metro columnist Clyde Haberman says the mayor is trying to "reinvent Prohibition."
Those are the mild ones. "It's peevish, pious,anti-urban," satirist Fran Lebowitz told a cable host. Ms. Lebowitz, who once described her hobbies as smoking and plotting revenge, added that the billionaire mayor "is acting like my father. If he is my father, I hope I am in the will." A Post editorial dismissed as "nonsense on its face" Mr. Bloomberg's assertion that secondhand smoke kills 1,000 New Yorkers a year.
Matters came to a head when Mayor Mike testified at an eight-hour council hearing before restaurateurs, waitresses, bartenders and other dupes of Big Tobacco. The tension was palpable, and even some of the mayor's backers wondered why he'd sink so much political capital into the issue given the city's other worries. It seemed to confirm his emergence as the anti-Giuliani: just as the departed Rudy's streak of irreligion leavened the exalted sense of mission he brought to everyday city government, so the issue of saving people from tobacco gives Mr. Bloomberg, no great idealist on most of the topics that cross his desk, a way of saving his soul.
We were warned. Campaign stories about Mr. Bloomberg's methods of managing his business empire kept using phrases like "total control" and "his way or the highway." Bloomberg desktops famously prevent e-mail users from using naughty words. And on taking office the former smoker made no effort to dissemble his convert's zeal, pushing through a massive cigarette tax hike (a local pack now costs $7.50).
But purifying the city's nightlife won't prove so easy. California, the one big state that bans smoking at bars, allows an alternative suited to its suburban character and mild climate -- outdoor smoking, for which bar owners provide awnings and gardens. Mr. Bloomberg's fanatical plan would ban smoking even in sidewalk-cafe settings, thus ensuring that patrons who crave a smoke emerge to the street, though friction with neighbors is already a problem for night spots.
In any case, New York isn't Sacramento. It's the city of swell joints and low dives, of visitors from overseas intent on partying all night, of studio apartments where the local watering hole serves the function of a living room. Recognizing the uphill cultural fight, Mr. Bloomberg's health department has dished out $1.1 million in city money for ads attacking as "lies" arguments against the plan. Bar owners thus get to fork over tax money used to lobby against them.
Even more infuriating was to hear from the mayor that they didn't know their best interests. "All of the evidence," quoth Mr. Bloomberg, is that "patronage of restaurants and bars goes up, not down" after smoking is banned. In fact, a quick trawl on NEXIS yields stories in which California taverners told reporters that the ban had cost them 25% to 40% of their business, forcing them to lay off servers. In New York, some restaurateurs invested small fortunes setting up separately ventilated smoking rooms after the last round of legislation just a few years ago -- the chumps.
Mr. Bloomberg's pretext for the law, to protect bar workers, is widely scoffed at: safety regulators don't share his view that respecting workers' rights requires a smoking ban. But don't count on a compromise. The mayor says that he wants to ban smoking even at private clubs, the clearest statement he could make of contempt for free association. Elaine Kaufman, the renowned owner of Elaine's, has an interesting idea: giving restaurants the right to buy smoking licenses as they now buy cabaret licenses. But that makes the mistake of assuming that the proposal's aim is merely to ensure an abundance of nonsmoking options for diners and servers, when the real point is to make sure that no such refuges remain for smokers. If even one smoky bar remains in the city, how can the mayor be sure of having saved his soul?
Mr. Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of The Rule of Lawyers" forthcoming from St. Martin's Press.
©2002 The Wall Street Journal
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