New York’s Bar Smoking Ban
Back in 2002, when the City Council was weighing Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposal to eliminate smoking from all indoor public places, few opponents were more fiercely outspoken than James McBratney, president of the Staten Island Restaurant and Tavern Association. He frequently ripped Mr. Bloomberg as a billionaire dictator with a prohibitionist streak that would undo small businesses like his bar and his restaurant. Visions of customers streaming to the legally smoke-filled pubs of New Jersey kept him awake at night. Asked last week what he thought of the now two-year-old ban, Mr. McBratney sounded changed. “I have to admit,” he said sheepishly, “I’ve seen no falloff in business in either establishment.” He went on to describe what he once considered unimaginable: Customers actually seem to like it, and so does he.
By many predictions, the smoking ban, which went into effect on March 30, 2003, was to be the beginning of the end of the city’s reputation as the capital of grit. Its famed nightlife would wither, critics warned, bar and restaurant businesses would sink, tourists would go elsewhere, and the mayor who wrought it all would pay a hefty price in the polls. And then there were those who said that city smokers, a rebellious class if ever there was one, simply would not abide. But a review of city statistics, as well as interviews last week with dozens of bar patrons, workers and owners, found that the ban has not had the crushing effect on New York’s economic, cultural and political landscapes predicted by many of its opponents.
Employment in restaurants and bars, one indicator of the city’s service economy, has risen slightly since the ban went into effect, as has the number of restaurant permits requested and held, according to city records, although those increases could be attributed in part to several factors, including a general improvement in the city’s economy.
My chief argument against such bans was always libertarian rather than economic. Few Manhattanites were likely to travel to New Jersey to go clubbing. Not only is would it be inconvenient, but it would be uncool. Still, there may be more of an economic argument in places where mobility is easier and less socially constrained. For example, a report on NPR recently noted that bar owners in DC’s Maryland suburbs were concerned that a smoking ban was going to cost them money because patrons could easily go to northwest DC to drink in smoke-permissable establishments.
I must admit, though, that the libertarian in me has to fight hard to dominate on this issue. I absolutely despise smoke-filled establishments and get quite ill if subjected to them for any length of time.
Kevin Drum notes that his very first blog post was on this subject and he got it right.