By Gamal Hennessy
One of the most contentious issues in New York nightlife this year, or in the past 7 years, is the ban on smoking. It draws the wrath of local residents down on club owners who follow the law. It generates animosity between smokers and non smokers in venues that don’t throw smokers outside. In extreme cases, venues are having their liquor licenses threatened and might be forced to close based on the actions of their patrons. Seven years under the current regulations have exposed problems in the system. What are the solutions that can serve the interests of everyone involved?
Outside vs. Inside
The smoking ban adds to the tension between club owners and local residents because when smokers are pushed outside it sets off a cycle of disruption and noise. You might think that a few people standing outside a venue will not substantially increase the level of street noise, but that concept only considers the smokers themselves. Smokers, especially attractive female smokers, provide a powerful incentive for groups of male fanatics to hang out in front of a club (especially if they couldn’t get in or got thrown out.) In a twisted effort to get noticed and prove their sexual superiority, these individuals will shout, get into fights, honk their horns if they are in their cars, or try to talk to girls from their cars and back up traffic behind them, which causes other cars to blow their horns. Fortunately for residents who live near the club, this mating cacophony will die down when the girls finish smoking and go back inside, but it will begin again when the next group of girls comes out of the club to take their place. If you change the law so smokers are not smoking out on the street in front of a bar, you reduce the negative impact the venue has on local residents.
Smokers vs. Non Smokers
Once you bring the smoking issue back within the four walls of the venue, accommodations need to be made to separate the smokers from the non-smokers. Published reports and anecdotal evidence suggest that a substantial number of non smoking nightlife patrons do not want to mix with active smokers indoors. To create physical separation, venues with separate rooms can designate the room furthest in the back as a smoking area. This will prevent non-smokers from having to travel through a nicotine cloud to get to their part of the club. Venues without separate rooms could have pressurized walls put in to create mini rooms inside the venue. As long as these rooms were properly ventilated and otherwise conformed to local building codes, smokers could smoke indoors and still be separated from the rest of the patrons and operators.
Clear the Air
Even if smokers were brought back inside and separated from the general population of patrons, something would have to be done with the smoke coming out of the smoking room in order for second hand smoke to be eliminated as a health and odor concern. Technology can provide the best solution here. 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 to clean the air. These systems reportedly are the size of a humidifier and 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 are smoking inside. If the law was modified and operators created separate spaces for smokers and installed air filtration units in the club, smokers could smoke without creating unnecessary noise for residents or an additional health hazard for patrons.
Targets the Actors, Not the Scene
There is only so much that an operator can do to stop smoking in their venue. Whether or not the city decides to allow for a more reasonable approach to the ban, one thing that needs to change is the parties that are punished for ignoring the ban. Under the current system, the patron ignores the ban and the operator is punished. There is no real disincentive for the patron to either continue smoking or to go to another venue to smoke. If the onus was placed on the smoker, if the Department of Health or some other organization that has enforcement powers fined the smoker instead of the bar, then the smokers might think twice before lighting up. I am not advocating DOH monitors in every venue. I am pointing out that any group that can act and know that someone else will be punished for their action has little reason to change their behavior.
Cities around the world are coming to the conclusion that open smoking in venues is no longer acceptable. But protecting public health does not have to lead to detrimental effects on nightlife. There are solutions that the current ban does not utilize. Failing to modify the law to take these options into account hurts everyone both inside the clubs and outside of them. It is time to move past the entrenched positions of City Hall to develop a plan that addresses the reality of the situation.