How Mayor Bloomberg’s Anti-Smoking Crackdown Hurts Those It Claims to Help

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Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Is the city's recent crackdown on smoking in clubs good policy or good PR? Before signing the Smoke-Free Air Act in late 2002, Mayor Bloomberg quoted a bartender who worried about the effects of secondhand smoke on his health, then announced proudly, "New York [now] extends protections from secondhand smoke to all its workers." Last month, ostensibly to protect that barkeep and his brethren, the administration moved to shut down five bustling downtown clubs because of smoking violations. But according to one owner of the club M2, which faces closure, inspectors had never been to his establishment before a December 31 Times article about nightspots that were ignoring the ban. Neither has the city ever before pursued forced closings as a smoking-law enforcement strategy.

The city has previously punished smoking-related offenses with fines ranging from $200 to $2,000. But "as soon as the Times published that article, I knew there was going to be a crackdown," says Joey Morrissey, M2's managing owner. For a mayor who's admitted he scowls at smokers on the street, the Times story couldn't have been easy to ignore. But tight door policies prevent health inspectors from consistently entering some of the upscale venues like Goldbar that were featured in the article; instead they've targeted larger, more accessible clubs like M2. After the story, Morrissey says, city officials hung around "every night we were open for two weeks." Now its 300 employees may be out on the street.

Given the more serious violations that big clubs have survived in the past — from drug raids to liquor-license issues to the West Side Highway murder of Jennifer Moore — it would be odd if cigarette smoke finally did M2 in. David Schwartz, owner of the East Village's Lit, says he'd never been ticketed for smoking-ban violations before the city's recent inspections landed him on the potential-closure list. "Why can't the city chop off my hand and not my head?" asks Schwartz. It's a valid question. But here's an even better one: Why not ticket the smokers themselves? Sure, it wouldn't be a grand gesture like shutting down a massive club — but it might solve the problem without hurting the people the mayor claims he was concerned about in the first place.

UPDATE: deputy commissioner of health Dan Kass says the recent undercover operations were already planned before the Times article appeared. “We needed a new strategy because clubs have plans in place where they scurry around picking up ashtrays when we show our badges at the door,” he says, adding that ticketing smokers rather than relying on clubs to enforce the rule would require building a much larger staff at taxpayer expense.