Bartenders speak out on smoking in the city
By Lilit Baron
Aimee is used to smoking a cigarette whenever she pleases during her shift at work. She has been a bartender at Afternoones Bar and Restaurant in Staten Island for four years. Her customers are regulars and know her by name. Dan has played sidekick to Aimee for 10 months now. After long shifts, he complains of having red, burning eyes. He does not enjoy the smoky environment but puts his grievances to the side in place for the money he makes from tips.
With new legislation in the works, Dan might not have to worry about the discomfort of working around smokers anymore, and Aimee and her regulars might have to surrender the convenience of smoking around the bar and step outside. As debate becomes more heated, a crucial decision must be made to continue or prohibit smoking in all bars and restaurants in New York City.
"Almost 75 percent of the customers in the restaurant smoke," Aimee says. The bar and restaurant does have separate smoking and non-smoking sections. "After we stop serving food at 11 p.m., smoking is allowed everywhere, though."
The non-smoking area consists of the dining hall, the largest room in the restaurant. Doorways then lead to the section where smoking is allowed, including the downstairs vicinity. A ventilation system has been installed to keep the air as smoke-free as possible. However, at night, the system only works to a limited extent. "Customers don't normally complain of smoke," Aimee says.
The legislation uses health as the strongest ally for its platform. Supporters of the legislation are concerned for the health of not only non-smoking customers but also workers as well. "I used to smoke and quit for health reasons," Dan says. "But I still inhale the smoke at work, so it's like I never quit. The people who work need to be put into consideration, not just the clientele."
Second-hand smoke has been proven to cause lung cancer repeated times in studies conducted over the past decade. The International Association for Research on Cancer linked passive smoking to a direct cause of lung cancer from studies earlier this year. Between 40,000 and 58,000 Americans die of secondhand smoke each year.
Workers in particular are exposed to the dangerous risks of second-hand smoke because of long hours spent at work. Dan is concerned for his health, but complains of the lingering stench of cigarette smoke.
"I hate coming home with my clothes and hair smelling like smoke," he says. "Sometimes I leave the clothes I wore the night before out in the hallway so my apartment won't smell like a bar."
According to owner Joe Territo, business is largely brought in by customers who rent Afternoones for private parties. A usual Sunday consists of three to four different parties taking place at once. Half the partiers smoke, he says.
"I don't see our business being hurt if the legislation does go through," Dan says. "This is a local neighborhood place. As long as people need the space for parties, we'll be fine. People are always trying to keep their kids safe and want to see them doing the right thing." He continues, "I don't understand that concept when adults smoke around their kids at the parties here. Don't they realize they're hurting them?"
The restaurant may be safe from losing customers in regards to food and parties, however, worries begin to surface over money that could possibly be lost at the bar in tips since most people closely associate smoking with drinking alcohol. Customers are thought to spend more time going out and at the bar, as well as going to a bar to be able to smoke in the first place.
"Since people will have to leave the bar and go outside and smoke, that means they won't necessarily be coming back," Aimee says. "Where as now, they can just smoke in between drinks. Regulars or not, if people are interrupted, they're not going to have as much to drink."
Yet, states such as California have banned smoking in all bars and restaurants and have not seen a decline. The Journal of Public Health Management and Practice used sales tax data from 81 locations restricting smoking and showed no effect on revenue.
"I wonder if people will drink more by replacing the fix they get from cigarettes," Dan says. "Drinking leads to smoking because you loosen up. Smoking keeps people busy. If you can't get the fix from the cigarettes, you'll need something to stop you from getting nervous. Like, another drink."
There is still speculation to the contrary. "New York is so different from places like California and sometimes we try to emulate those other places," Aimee says. "New Yorkers will always do what they want to do. I see a lot of places being fined if this really happens."
On most evenings during the week, local precinct officers visit Afternoones for food and after-work drinks. More than half of them smoke.
"I want to know how extreme the penalties are going to be," Aimee says. "Is it going to be a fine as big as serving to minors or something not as serious like opening a half hour early?"
Regulating the measure will be the next obstacle if the legislation is approved. Fears arise when considering individual rights.
"Banning smoking will definitely test the waters," Aimee says. "No one has the right to tell people to not smoke, especially paying customers. Smoking cigarettes in bars isn't anything new. It's something everyone has come to expect. Why are people just now starting to complain?"
Complications also surface with regard to noise. With more people pouring onto sidewalks to be able to smoke, especially during late night and early morning hours, residents in neighboring areas face the possibility of uninvited blare. Afternoones, in particular, is on a main street, bounded by apartment buildings.
"It's going to be so chaotic with masses gathering outside for cigarettes," Aimee says. "It's a horrible idea to send people outside who have been drinking. People can really get themselves in trouble."
According to the City Council, the ban is unlikely to go to a vote before the end of this year. Delayed but not abolished, a decision, if passed, could effect not only New York City but also pave the way for other large cities to adopt similar regulations. Bartenders like Aimee and Dan will have a first-hand experience of the effects and impact of the legislation.
"A smoke-free workplace would be great," Dan says. "Bartenders and waiters wouldn't have to be exposed to something so unhealthy. It will finally give you a choice. If you don't want to smoke, now you won't have to breathe in someone else's. If people really want a cigarette they can just go outside and spare the rest of us. It's not that hard of a thing to do. And in the process, they'll just put themselves at risk and not everyone else around them."
"I can't envision what bars would be like without smoking," Aimee says. "It seems so extreme. Who is allowed to tell people that they don't have the freedom to make the decision of whether they want to smoke or not in a public place? Who has that right? And who's forgetting ours? People will still smoke the same way that college bars serve to minors. It's inevitable. I honestly can't see this rule working."
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