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    « BACK to Christopher Ditto's portfolio

    Posted 10.12.03
    Blowing Smoke
    Why New York City should ban smoking

    January 30, 2002

    My first conversation in a New York bar was not about wine, women, or song. It was about a product called Febreze.

    "You've got to try it," yelled the friend of a friend who was sitting next to me, "the stuff is amazing." The guy had watched me fan smoke away, sniff my shirt and wrinkle my nose disapprovingly. He took the opportunity to give me some free advice. "You get home from the bar and before you go to bed you spray your clothes with this Febreze stuff. Next morning you wake up and, KAPOW, no smoky smell."

    "No thanks," I remember responding cynically, "I wash my clothes before I wear them again so it doesn't really matter if my clothes reek."

    Ah, how na´ve I was. My bedroom smelled like an ashtray the next morning and my wool coat smelled even worse.

    But I have an excuse for being so unwise to the ways of New York bars. You see, people don't smoke in bars where I come from. I am a recent West Coast transplant. California made smoking in bars and restaurants illegal Jan. 1, 1998. Four years later and the other West Coast states are following suit.

    Maybe New York City is just a little more libertarian than what I'm used to, I remember thinking. I spent four years in the People's Republic of Berkeley so I understand people who crave more personal freedoms and fewer laws. If millions of New Yorkers are comfortable with smoking in bars, I told myself, then maybe I could get used to using my new eye drops and a little Febreze. Well, that was how I felt until my next strange New York bar encounter.

    "Excuse me sir, there's no dancing allowed here."
    "No dancing sir. We don't have a license."

    New York City's "cabaret laws," I soon found out, are set of rules dating back to 1926 that require a "Cabaret License" if any dancing is going to take place where beverages are served. According to nightclub owners, the licensing process is an Orwellian nightmare and has resulted in forced bar closures under former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's "quality of life" campaign. The campaign, which targeted, among other things, rowdy nightclubs and noisy bars, had the de facto effect of stomping out the dance scene in all five boroughs.

    Citysearch lists 1,897 bars in New York City and, according to the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, 313 of them currently have cabaret licenses. This makes dancing, as far as I can tell, illegal in 94 percent of all New York City bars. And with this revelation went my libertarian theory.

    If something is going to be banned, or cracked down upon by police, let's at least make it something carcinogenic. I can't get cancer from someone else shaking his or her butt to music. I also don't need Visine or Febreze to recover from other people's dancing. Well, I'll leave that one alone.

    But the subject of second hand smoke took on a new dimension for me a few weeks ago. A relative of mine was just diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the larynx. He is an otherwise healthy 76-year-old man who has never smoked. The dilemma in the family is what to tell the wife. No one has the heart to tell her that her 40-year habit of smoking inside the house is most likely the cause of her husband's terminal cancer; at least that's what the doctors say.

    So, my new New York friends, when you think about smoke-filled bars, think about the others around you who are sniffing their shirts, rubbing their eyes, and breathing in that carcinogenic particulate matter. Better yet, think about those who work there night after night.

    I liked it more when I went to a bar and just talked about wine, women and song.

    ] End [