In New York, a firefight over smoke-free bars

Mayor Bloomberg's crusade runs into a balky City Council.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg makes no bones about what he things of smokers: "You've got to be stupid, really dumb to smoke." With that blunt assessment, the billionaire businessman-turned-mayor touched off what's become the most contentious battle of first year in office - his fight to ban smoking in most public places, including all bars and restaurants.

To him, it's a simple issue of public health and workers' rights: Even bartenders and waitresses should be able to breathe clean, smoke-free air, he says. The man who's silenced critics with his uncanny political ability to get what he wants in these extremely difficult times - from control of the schools to concessions from usually boisterous unions - appeared to think it would be a straightforward battle. After all, 73 percent of New Yorkers are in favor of a tough smoking ban. California, Delaware, and Toronto have already instituted such antismoking laws, and the restaurant and bar business didn't fold up.

So the mayor began this campaign in the summer, hoping to have one of the toughest smoking bans in the country in place by Nov. 21 - the Great American Smoke Out.

But those plans have been stamped out. This is one fight that's proved there is fire, and lots of it, when you threaten to take away New Yorkers' already limited rights to light up. (A 1995 ban prohibits smoking in public buildings and restaurants that seat more than 35 people.)

"They're trying to socially engineer people who choose to smoke, and believe me, people choose to continue to smoke," says Audrey Silk, the founder of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment. She was standing on the steps of City Hall carrying a sign that says "Smoke Bloomberg and His Ban!" just prior to the second City Council hearing on the measure.

While Wednesday's marathon affair was far less rambunctious than the first - that one included a human-sized cigarette, a few grim reapers, and lots of heckling - this one was just as packed with raw emotion. Those lining up in favor of the ban, which would snuff out smoke even on outdoor patios, maintain it's a simple health issue. Medical studies have found mounting evidence of a direct link between secondhand smoke and cardiovascular disease.

Jessica Heald, a waitress and bartender at the Park Central Hotel, says she can document a direct link between when she started working at the bar 3-1/2 years ago and the development of respiratory problems. "This is about me going to work and being able to breathe and not using an inhaler to make it through the night," she says. "No one should be forced to choose between paying their mortgage and being able to breathe."

But bar owners contend that if you don't like the working conditions, go somewhere else. Indeed, that's exactly what they're afraid their smoking patrons and potential tourists will do if the Bloomberg ban becomes law. "Our businesses will suffer because instead of sitting inside at the bar, they'll be outside on the street smoking," says Brian Rohan of the United Restaurant and Liquor Association, which represents 300 eating and drinking establishments in New York.

To quell such concerns, the ban advocates flew in Alex Munter, a City Council member from Ottawa, who said business didn't suffer when smoking restrictions took effect. Toronto's smokers gladly go outside, he says, even when it's 5 below.

That produced a hoot of indignation from the prosmoking constituents. The prospect of smokers gathering outside bars also produced opposition from some neighborhood groups. "If they step out on the sidewalk, you're talking about scores of people outside the bars smoking every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night," says Charles G. Wolf of the Bleeker Area Merchants and Residents Association. "We're talking noise: People who've had a couple of drinks don't talk softly. We're talking smoke rising up into people's apartments in the warm weather."

City Council members have been trying to negotiate some exceptions to the ban - for instance, for cigar bars and establishments which install high-tech filtering devices. But so far, Mr. Bloomberg has refused to budge. And the council is refusing to vote, at least until next year.

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