The New York Times

October 19, 2002

The Smoke Nazis


he mayor of New York City does not seem to be a particularly puritanical man. Michael Bloomberg is a guy who, when asked if he had ever tried marijuana, replied: "You bet I did. And I enjoyed it." (Alas, he's not willing to advocate decriminalizing the experience for the rest of us, but that's a subject for another day.) He once fondly likened his college fraternity to the one in "Animal House," and he still enjoys a party. He is no libertarian, let alone libertine, but his attitude toward private pleasure is pretty much live and let live.

On the subject of tobacco, though, he has surprised many constituents with his zeal. First he slapped on a city tax increase that raises the price of a pack of cigarettes to around $7. Now he proposes to outlaw smoking in every bar and restaurant in the five boroughs of New York.

Is this the smug virtue of a reformed smoker? A bit of bash-tobacco political opportunism? A rich man's paternalism toward what has become more and more a working-class vice? It's not unreasonable to suspect a bit of each: Mr. Bloomberg is a convert from a pack-a-day habit, Big Tobacco is the domestic equivalent of Saddam Hussein, and Mr. Bloomberg's class empathy is more top-hat than tip-jar.

Granting all of that, and granting the aversion of New Yorkers to being patronized, and even granting a little sympathy for the slaves of tobacco, I think the mayor is on the right side of something important.

Mr. Bloomberg has framed the smoking ban as strictly an issue of workplace safety — a line that is hard to assail on the merits. The mayor will tell you he strongly defends your right to smoke yourself to death, but you may not spray your toxic effluent into the airspace of innocent bystanders, in particular the waiters and bartenders whose only recourse is to quit their jobs.

There are basically three arguments being raised against him: science, economics and personal liberty. Two of them Mr. Bloomberg wins hands down, and one is open to debate.

The science argument is that the damage of secondhand smoke has been vastly overstated by anti-tobacco zealots. I have a few pounds of medical literature on my desk that says otherwise. Both the epidemiological evidence (people who live with smokers have much higher risks of lung cancer and heart disease) and the physical evidence (even brief exposure to secondhand smoke has measurable effects on your blood chemistry and heart rate) are credibly alarming. When Thomas Frieden, the city health commissioner, says that 1,000 New Yorkers will die this year from other people's cigarettes, he may be rounding off the number but he's not just blowing smoke.

Kenneth Warner, an economist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who is widely regarded as a fair-minded expert on tobacco regulation, said that a few years ago he used to complain about "policy-led science," meaning anti-smoking statutes were being built on shaky evidence. Now he feels the balance has shifted. The research on the dangers of involuntary smoking has grown far more damning, and the law has yet to catch up.

"Clearly for people who work in those environments, they might as well be smokers themselves," Mr. Warner says.

The economics argument is that no-smoking statutes hurt business at bars and restaurants. Here, too, there is a mountain of good evidence from California, where smoking in a bar or restaurant has been outlawed statewide since 1998. Studies based on sales slips and tax records show that the increased spending of grateful nonsmokers — who, after all, make up about 80 percent of the adult population — easily compensates for any smokers who stay home. The few studies that show business suffering tend to be sponsored, surprise, by the tobacco industry. They are based on what restaurant owners say rather than on actual records, or they blame the smoking ban for declining sales that began long before the ban was enacted.

Which leaves the debate about personal freedom, or, as one City Councilman put it during last week's hearings on the smoking ban, "people's right to be stupid."

The freedom-lovers argue that smoking is a social pleasure, and that the right to congregate over drinks and smokes should not be denied to consenting adults — including consenting bartenders, who are entitled to risk emphysema if they like the wages. Some of the mayor's critics have elevated public smoking to the status of a civil right, and talk about tobacco regulators as jack-booted thugs. I kept waiting for someone to trot out the fact that the first health-based crusade against smoking was launched by Adolf Hitler. (Yes, the Führer banned smoking in public places.)

It's a little odd, when you think about it, to talk about liberty regarding a practice that is more an addiction than a choice. Smokers stay smokers in large part because they can't quit. We start in the first place in large part because we are captives of fashion — the imperative to emulate our teenage peers, the allure of countless hipsters and renegades and screen seducers, the relentless happy illusions of tobacco industry propaganda. We start, that is, because we are conformists, conforming in this case to an image of independence or worldliness.

Mr. Bloomberg's campaign is part of a larger attempt to turn back a powerful cultural tide, reinforced by $10 billion a year in tobacco industry marketing muscle, that has glamorized tobacco and insinuated it into our sense of fun. Banishing tobacco from places where people socialize has proved to be a highly effective way of countering the notion that smoking is cool. Mr. Bloomberg has focused on the bartenders who will live longer because they no longer inhale regurgitated tobacco, but the larger effect of putting bars and restaurants off limits to smokers is indirect: serious numbers of active smokers quit — and children never start — because of the public disapproval these laws broadcast.

"These restrictions change social norms," says Michael Thun, chief epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society. "That's the real reason the tobacco industry opposes them so vehemently."

Mr. Bloomberg gave up smoking cold turkey, and he expects New York nightspots to do likewise. He accepts no compromise. "If you try to be cute, and have all sorts of carve-outs, you make laws that are so complex and so unfair and invariably have unintended consequences," he says.

That is a respectable position, but I suspect allowances will, and should, be made to ease along the smoking minority. Some City Council members want to exempt all stand-alone bars that don't serve food, which is a pretty gaping loophole. Another option is to try to invent little sanctuaries for consensual smoking. In California, a sole proprietor who tends his own bar and thus endangers no employees is exempted from the no-smoking law. Other smoke-ban municipalities have allowed bars to reorganize as private smoking clubs — "smoke-easies," they have been called. Commissioner Frieden is scornful of such exemptions. "We don't allow asbestos-easies," he says. "We don't allow benzene-easies. We don't allow formaldehyde-easies, or radiation-easies." Admittedly, exemptions are hard to contain. But an immediate, absolute ban feels, frankly, a little contrary to the indulgent spirit of New York.

Possibly we will simply tolerate a certain amount of non-enforcement. The Dutch have invented an artful policy they call gedogen, which means deliberately turning a blind eye; the term applies to those Amsterdam coffee houses where patrons are allowed to smoke cannabis although the stuff is technically illegal. A lawyer friend of mine frequents a bar in San Francisco where everyone pretends not to notice when a smoker lights up. The clientele there is mostly cops and prosecutors.

Those who romanticize the camaraderie of a smoky bar may get over it more easily than they think. My friend John Lescroart, a novelist whose characters spend a good deal of time in the bars of San Francisco, has a lifelong dislike of being told what's good for him. I called him the other day, expecting him to wax sentimental about the blue haze and perfume of a smoky bar in the days before the smoke nazis took over California. To my surprise, I found a grudging convert to the smoke-free night life.

"On philosophical grounds, it's an appalling infringement of liberty," he said. "But do I like it? Yeah. It's gotten so when I travel to places where people smoke in restaurants, it's really gross. I can smell a cigarette at 100 yards now, and I find it offensive. Even though I would die for your right to smoke it."

Bartender, Nicorette for the house!

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company