Ban in the USA

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There is much we can learn from New York's public smoking ban, says New York business correspondent for the Sunday Times Dominic Rushe.The last time...

There is much we can learn from New York's public smoking ban, says New York business correspondent for the Sunday Times Dominic Rushe.

The last time I lit up in public was in May at the bar in the United Nations. I have stopped smoking many times, herded in to it by fear of cancer, impotence, wrinkles and my wife and children.

These and other horrors had haunted me for years every time I opened my pack of Marlboro. But probably the tipping point this time was the realisation that, outside the UN, smoking in New York really has become just too much of a fag.

It is almost impossible to smoke in public in New York following a ban brought in last March. Except at the UN, once more hopelessly out-of-step with the United States, smokers lead an unhappy, outdoor life whatever the weather.

But diplomats, I always thought, were different to you and I. They park where they like and can carry guns and drugs through customs like we carry duty-free. A lot of them are French. This American smoking ban was never going to hit them, or so you would have thought. Starting this month, guests at the ambassadors' parties will be sans fume - no doubt they will all be eating a lot more Ferrero Rocher.

It wasn't always so. When I arrived in New York nearly two years ago with a 20-a-day habit I was pleasantly surprised by the city's enthusiasm for smoking.

OK, so in restaurants you weren't allowed to smoke between (or during) courses. And more people gave you dirty looks when you sparked one up than they would in London. But in general, Manhattan wasn't the smoke-free hell that people made it out to be.

Now, with a few near meaningless exceptions, smoking has been banned in bars, clubs and restaurants. The move was brought in to protect staff from the dangers of second-hand smoke. But bar owners have been making dire predictions about the future of those workers' jobs at many of the city's night-spots and restaurants. Bar takings are significantly down, they claim. At present the jury is out but New York's experiment is being watched closely in Britain and elsewhere.

Some bar and restaurant associations say it has hit them hard. According to Scott Wexler, of lobby group the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, his members are reporting an average drop in business of about 20 percent.

Mr Wexler says: "Bars in particular are really suffering. These people are going to go out of business." He says people are staying at home or travelling to other states to combine drinking and smoking.

There have been social consequences too. Much of downtown Manhattan looks like a giant ashtray on a Saturday morning.

In a place where space is at a premium, forcing smokers outside has led to a record rise in the number of noise complaints.

More seriously, one death - of a nightclub bouncer - has been attributed to the smoking ban. Dana Blake, a bouncer at a lower east-side Manhattan club, died of a stab wound after allegedly asking someone to stop smoking. The case has been used by those in favour of self-regulation as evidence of the consequences of a ban.

But the original suspects have been released uncharged and it is still far from clear what caused the killing. In the face of a torrent of negative press the anti-smoking lobby has stood firm. George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf, founder of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), says there is no going back. Mr Banzhaf, America's most influential voice on anti-smoking, says the tobacco industry is trying to create a controversy over issues that do not exist.

Smoking has been banned in a number of areas in the past and elicited a huge outcry from the tobacco industry, he says. Yet few, if any, can prove long-lasting damage from the ban.

"Look at long-haul flights. Did numbers fall after a ban? No. Look at Californian bars and restaurants, numbers have not fallen as predicted since they banned smoking," he says.

Some bar and restaurant owners agree. Yves Jadot runs the Petite Abeille bar and restaurant chain in New York and says the economy - not the smoking ban - has had the biggest impact on New York's bar and restaurant industry. "For us the smoking ban is not a big deal," he says. "People are getting used to it. We serve a lot of food and no one was allowed to smoke in the eating area anyway. Now if they want a cigarette then they have to go outside. It's not so bad."

Mr Wexler added that bars and restaurants that major on food are holding their own. He says a salesman for beer giant Anheuser Busch recently told him that beer sales were down seven per cent across New York but that restaurant sales were flat. "It seems clear that the real losers here are the bars and taverns," he says.

Mr Wexler's organisation is now attempting to have New York's ban overturned and a more flexible set of rules put in place allowing smoking in certain areas of bars. The association is also taking legal action against the ban.

He would like self-regulation but Mr Wexler says the chances of that are next to nothing.

In Britain pub owners are holding out for a self-regulated solution although a government-imposed ban is a strong possibility. Pizza Hut recently outlawed smoking from its restaurants, citing the need to protect both staff and customers from passive smoking. It was a clear sign that banning smoking is no longer seen as a commercial consideration likely to drive away too many customers.

Smoking bans are also coming into effect closer to home. Ireland - where a fag and a pint are almost a cultural institution - starts its smoking ban in pubs from January 1, 2004. Two other countries - Norway and the Netherlands - have approved prohibitions on smoking in bars and restaurants.

Even in Greece, with one of the highest smoking rates in Europe, restrictions on smoking are expected ahead of next summer's Olympics.

Smoking bans of some description now seem inevitable. The only real debate is on whether they will be state-imposed or voluntary.

Mr Banzhaf has little time for voluntary codes of practice. "This is a health and safety issue," he says. "Health and safety matters are covered by legislation."

Times have changed, says Mr Banzhaf, who has been campaigning against smoking since the 1970s. "There are plenty of things that people do in private that they are not allowed to do in public. Why should smoking be different?"

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