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Dying for a cigarette

Joe Queenan on the terror, misery and lunacy that have followed the smoking ban in New York

26 April 2003

12:00 AM

26 April 2003

12:00 AM

New York

Fifty-three years ago, Frank Loesser wrote a famous musical about the refusal of New Yorkers to kowtow to the demands of earnest reformers and implacable do-gooders. Since Guys and Dolls bowed, New York has survived J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Spiro Agnew, Rudy Giuliani and the ministrations of a host of other civic-minded zealots determined to force the city to clean up its act. But it could not survive Mike Bloomberg.

On 30 March of this year, Mayor Bloomberg finally got his wish when a citywide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants came into effect. Smokers were branded as the enemy of the people; sinister curs whose vile habits have contributed to the deaths of innumerable bartenders, waitresses, busboys, porters and, presumably, a substantial number of carnies, floozies, counter jumpers, barflies, rum runners and travelling salesmen. The ban also stripped New Yorkers of the right to light up in bowling alleys and rooftop gardens. The immediate effect was to force legions of angry, drunken smokers out into the streets where they could congregate in large angry circles and keep everybody in the neighbourhood awake until three o’clock in the morning complaining about not being able to smoke inside any more. New York City used to have a lot of bars. Now it is a bar.

Ten days after the ban came into effect, a bouncer at a trendy Lower East Side club was stabbed to death by a martial-arts student who became enraged when informed that he could not smoke inside the establishment. (Secondhand smoke, health advocates argue, leads to death, as do sharp, pointed objects.) The name of the club was Guernica, site of the Luftwaffe massacre during the Spanish Civil War that inspired Pablo Picasso, a one-time communist and smoker, to create his celebrated painting of the same name. The alleged killer is now in police custody on a 24-hour suicide watch. It is not clear whether Bloomberg’s smoking ban extends to the facility in which he has been detained, or if the police personnel detaining him are smokers.

There are several ways of looking at the Bloomberg ban. One is that the municipal insanity that gripped New York City during the stock-market bubble of the late Nineties has been rechannelled directly into Bloomberg’s head. A lifelong Democrat who switched to the Republican party in order to win the mayoral election two years ago, a billionaire who spent an enormous amount of his own money to purchase an office most politicians would pay a comparable amount to avoid, Bloomberg may well have a few screws loose; he may simply be a man who is out to a rather long lunch. This, by the way, is the charitable view.


A second, even more charitable, view is that the mayor is merely being trendy. High-profile states such as California and Colorado and dinky little backwaters like Delaware have also enacted stringent anti-smoking legislation, so the case can be made that Bloomberg, himself an ex-smoker, has simply succumbed to the Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City syndrome. But Bloomberg is not a native New Yorker; he hails from Boston, a city with a massive chip on its shoulder. If he’d been born in the Empire State, Bloomberg would know that the average New Yorker would sooner see a law enacted that would enforce a pack-a-day habit on all citizens before it would pass a law just because California did.

A third view is that Bloomberg thought his smoking ban would provide him with an easy victory. Like Ronald Reagan ganging up on pipsqueak Grenada, like Bill Clinton apologising to the American Indians for five centuries of abuse without actually offering any compensatory moolah, Bloomberg may have pencilled in the smoking ban as a gambit with no apparent downside risk.

Before the ban went into effect, there were ceaseless complaints from businessmen about reduced patronage and declining profits, not to mention the usual Sturm und Drang from editorial-page writers and enraged libertarians regarding civil rights. (‘First they came for the Benson & Hedges. Next they came for the Cohibas. The next thing you know they’ll come for the hash pipes.’) But since the crackdown began, much of the criticism has come from non-smokers.

Anyone unfortunate to live anywhere near a bar or a restaurant – in other words, every other resident of Manhattan – has been plagued by the late-night carcinogenic clatches outside the city’s 13,000 bars and restaurants. Long known for their live-and-let-die approach to life, many New Yorkers seem to believe that the smoking ban is an idiotic attempt to correct a problem that does not actually exist; a cure far more malignant than the disease it was designed to correct.

About ten years ago, when the anti-smoking movement was starting to gather hurricane force, I wrote a story called ‘The Week of Smoking Dangerously’. The story was commissioned by GQ, but was spiked, ostensibly because of pressure from advertisers. Eventually it ran in the conservative American Spectator. The story recounted a week I spent wandering around New York City puffing on cigarettes and cigars in all kinds of public places just to see what kind of reaction I would get.

Since I had given up cigarettes years earlier, it was a revelation to me to discover that smokers were now widely viewed as the Antichrist. Smokers provided the righteous, the holier-than-thou and the politically correct with the only moral victory they would ever achieve, the only enemy they would ever have the courage to confront. Too gutless to face down hostile urban youths blasting sexist music from their radios, constitutionally unable to upbraid construction workers making obscene comments about female breasts or male sexual orientation, and just generally wussy, the self-anointed were prowling the streets looking for ancient, tubercular, one-legged blind chainsmokers they could inundate with their contumely and drench with their emotional spittle and pummel with their tote bags, and so on.

By instituting his smoking ban, Bloomberg felt that he was giving his constituency exactly what they wanted: a sacrificial lamb. A sacrificial lamb puffing on a Marlboro. Unfortunately, the sacrificial lamb turned out to be a bouncer at a Lower East Side nightclub.

It’s worth noting that New York City is in the throes of a financial crisis, confronted by a deficit so large it may lead to massive cutbacks in teachers, firemen, police, and the closing of two zoos. Bloomberg has been curiously tight-lipped when dealing with the politicians from upstate and those who hold the purse strings in Washington. Many of the blue-collar types who will be victims of the coming purge are smokers; now they will no longer have jobs, and will no longer have anywhere to go to puff away their sorrows.

As the days pass, the pugnacious Rudy Giuliani looms larger in memory. On 11 September 2001, Giuliani rallied a stricken nation. Had Bloomberg been mayor that day, he would have been wandering around Manhattan making sure that city officials were not smoking in company time. With the zeal of the newly converted, the righteousness of the limousine liberal, the paternalism of the neo-con and the insatiable passion of the puritan to root out anyone anywhere who seems to be having a good time, Mike Bloomberg is the least entertaining politician to come along in years. Fun City, hell.


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