Tuesday, January 5, 2010

2010: The Year of the Smoker?

By Gamal Hennessy

The ban on smoking in New York clubs was one of the key nightlife policy changes of the last decade. But news stories at the end of 2009 reveal that more and more venues allow smoking and run the risk of fines and possible closure by city authorities. Where does this defiance come from and how will it impact New York nightlife in 2010?

A Shift in Stance
smoking ban took effect in 2003 and while most venues complied, there were always a few spots that wouldn’t stop you from lighting up, even if they did incur the occasional fine. Early in 2008 there were growing public instances of venues that did not rope off areas out front or create special outdoor sections for smokers. Some operators, both openly and privately, came to the conclusion that it is easier and more cost effective to simply allow people to smoke.

At the end of 2009
smoking in clubs was again reported to be on the rise in New York City. This may be because enforcement has dropped off or because the fines are low enough that paying them costs less than complying with the law, receiving noise complaints from neighbors or alienating influential natives.

Patrons might do choose to remain indoors to smoke for convenience when it’s time to satisfy their cravings, but the reasons for non compliance from the operators’ perspective are largely economic.

One of the
problems that nightlife advocates predicted before the ban took effect was an increase of street noise that is a natural by-product of the law. When patrons go into a bar, they grab a drink and begin interacting with each other. The volume of the music played in the venue and the increased levels of intoxication raises the volume of the patrons when they are inside. They are screaming, laughing and shouting at each other. Then a few of them go outside to grab a smoke.

As they open the door, noise from the dance floor and the DJ booth spill out into the street. When the patrons get outside, they are still intoxicated. Some of them, especially the
amateurs and fanatics, are still screaming, laughing and shouting at each other. The only difference is now they are yelling beneath the window of the preppy couple who just bought a four million dollar condo across the street from the venue because they thought the neighborhood was trendy. The couple can’t sleep. Their expensive purebred dog is stressed out. They get frustrated. They call 311. The club is fined and their liquor license is threatened because they conformed to the smoking ban.

The operator is now caught on the horns of a dilemma; enforce the smoking ban and risk losing their liquor license because of noise complaints or control the noise by allowing people to smoke inside and risk losing their liquor license because of DOH violations. Neither choice is satisfactory.

There was (and still is) an alternative that protects the health of patrons and operators, keeps noise levels down outside of venues and allows patrons to smoke all at the same time. There are
air filtration systems on the market that have been approved by the Department of Health and are currently used by infectious disease wards in hospitals. These systems reportedly are the size of a humidifier, one of them can keep 1,250 square feet of interior air cleaner than the air in Central Park, even if 60 % of the people inside are smoking. Nightlife advocates proposed that if a venue was primarily a bar, lounge or club and not a restaurant, then they could have one filter installed for every 1,250 square feet of interior space to become exempt from the ban. This alternative was not included in the final version of the law.

The Year to Come
It remains to be seen how Bloomberg will react to this defiance during his third term. The smoking ban was largely his brainchild and he might feel the need to crackdown on wayward operators. If there is a new round of anti-nightlife sentiment from City Hall, the ban could be used to shut venues down in the same way Giuliani
used the cabaret law to shut down spots he didn’t like. It might be a better long term plan for the industry to come together to help change the law instead of ignoring it.

Have fun.


1 comment:

The G Manifesto said...

Great article.

I think a common ground can be reached.