Smoking Bans in USA Are Not Working

There is evidence that smoking bans outside New York City may also be losing their bite. USA Today reported last month that bars in Chicago and Honolulu as well as in Ohio and Virginia were openly defying bans.

GIVE credit to the first guy to light up a cigarette inside GoldBar on a recent Saturday night: at least he was pretending to be discreet.

Between puffs, the smoker, a 30-something man with a tight T-shirt, a gold watch and a gym membership, slyly obscured his cigarette behind the knee-high table that held his $400 bottle of Belvedere, assorted mixers and a pack of Parliaments. In turn, the cocktail waitresses flanking the room — who, at 12:30 a.m., still outnumbered the patrons — pretended not to notice.

An hour later, there was no longer any need, or attempt, to be discreet. The tiny Lower East Side lounge, where the privilege to spend hundreds on a bottle of liquor is extended only to those fabulous enough to make it past the doormen, was packed and smelled unmistakably of cigarette smoke. One skinny woman in a miniskirt and black leggings perched on the back of a couch and lazily blew smoke at the ceiling; another held a cigarette overhead while dancing.

Clearly, Mayor Bloomberg didn’t make the guest list.

Six years after New York City passed a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, it is easier than ever to find smokers partying indoors like it’s 1999, or at least 2002. In November, Eater called it “the worst kept secret in New York nightlife” that “smoking is now allowed in numerous nightspots, specifically just about any and every lounge and club with a doorman and a rope.” A few weeks later, GuestofaGuest, a blog about New York clubs and bars, posted a “smoker’s guide to N.Y.C. nightlife.”

“Everyone looks the other way,” said Billy Gray, 25, a reporter for Guest of a Guest, who says that he knows precisely which high-end bars and lounges, most of them in the meatpacking district or Lower East Side, will let him smoke inside. Far from deterring smoking indoors, the ban simply adds an allure to it, said Mr. Gray, a half-pack-a-day smoker.

“It’s more of an illicit thrill now,” he said. “Like when you were a teenager and snuck a beer in your parents’ basement.”

Plenty of New York City bars have thumbed their noses at the smoking ban for as long as it has been the law. As early as 2004, The New York Times wrote about neighborhood bars that allowed friends and regulars to light up after closing time. In 2008, at the opening of the Libertine, a Todd English restaurant in the financial district, cigarette girls handed out free smokes that guests consumed liberally.

But corner bars that tolerate smoking have traditionally relied on flying too far below the radar to be noticed. By contrast, at expensive paparazzi-flanked nightclubs that appear in gossip columns, there seems to be a new brazenness.

Until the Beatrice Inn — once referred to as “a low-ceiling’d smokehut” by Gawker.com — was padlocked in April amid a flurry of building violations and mounting debt, Kirsten Dunst could be found almost nightly “perched on the counter behind the D.J. booth, smoking cigarettes and bopping her head around to her boyfriend’s tunes,” according to Observer.com, the Web site of The New York Observer. That report appeared in January, just days after the Beatrice received its third smoking citation from the department of health in six weeks.

Not that you have to be a celebrity. Pat Shea, a 22-year-old student, was smoking inside Avenue — which has hosted the likes of Justin Timberlake and Lindsay Lohan — at 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in November. Mr. Shea said he was on his way outside to smoke when a staff member told him not to bother.

“I asked the busboy where to smoke and he said, ‘Oh, people just light up in here,’ ” Mr. Shea said. “I saw other people do it and then I decided, Why not?”

On Yelp.com, comments posted by Kimberly K. summed up the thoughts of nonsmokers in an October review of Griffin, another high-end club in the meatpacking district: “I thought you weren’t allowed to smoke in nightclubs anymore,” she wrote. “It seemed anywhere I stood, or sat, the person next to me was lighting up and blowing it in my face.”

All that smoke hasn’t escaped the attention of the New York City health department. Citations for smoking in bars and restaurants went up 35 percent this summer, to 306 citations compared with 227 for the summer of 2008. In all of 2008 there were 632 violations, compared with 592 in 2007. (Neither Avenue nor Griffin has been cited by the health department for violating the smoking ban, but this reporter, on several visits to Avenue since it opened in June, found people smoking each time. One visit to Griffin in November revealed widespread smoking.)

Elliott Marcus, an associate commissioner of the health department, said that he knew where the trouble spots were. “It’s these high-end places for people who think that the rules don’t apply to them,” he said.

The department has increased late-night smoking patrols. Undercover investigators roam the meatpacking district, the Lower East Side and Astoria, Queens, in what Mr. Marcus called a “cat-and-mouse game.”

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