Effect of smoking ban in New York is unclear

Some nightclubs struggle as many restaurants thrive


NEW YORK - When New York City banned smoking in its bars and restaurants in March, opponents warned that the tough law would drive away customers and devastate businesses. Supporters insisted that New Yorkers would quickly adjust.

Nine months later, the effect is hardly so clear-cut. An examination of government data, public polls, private surveys and interviews with customers, employees and owners of more than three dozen bars and restaurants around the city shows the law having an effect on some businesses, but certainly not on all.

Many bar owners and managers say the smoking ban has hurt business, eroding profits and, in some cases, forcing them to cut back hours or lay off workers. Others say they have seen virtually no effect.

Some restaurants and bars say business is fine - even thriving, as the economy improves - particularly in places where food is a main draw. Further, a large majority of New Yorkers have said in recent polls that they are happy with the law. One survey shows that many regular restaurant-goers see a smoke-free environment as an attraction.

That does not mean, though, that some city night spots are not hurt by the ban. Happy-hour sales on Friday nights at the Whiskey Ward on the Lower East Side have dropped to barely $100, from $600, a co-owner says, and regulars have disappeared along with the ashtrays.

A co-owner of Patroon, a steakhouse in Midtown, says he no longer sees much of a cigar-puffing, after-dinner crowd. And in the meatpacking district, the owner of Hogs & Heifers, where Julia Roberts was once enticed to dance on the bar, says she is considering laying off four employees.

Then there are the many nuisances wrought by the smoking ban, which bar owners and bartenders say just makes it harder to scrape out a living in an already tough business.

"It's harder to keep track of everybody going in and out," said Chuck Zeilfelder, a bartender at Bourbon Street in Queens, who opposes the ban. "It's common for people to leave money on the bar, and that becomes an issue - how much they left. Also, people leave their drinks on the bar and go out. The drinks get thrown out, and then you have to buy them another round on the house."

It is unclear whether the complaints about the smoking ban are anything more than growing pains, as a city that prides itself on its night life adjusts to the far-reaching new law. Certainly, where the city goes from here is of great interest to other places around the world, such as Ireland, Norway, and Baltimore, which are debating their own versions of the law.

The early evidence, however, is that many businesses are unharmed. In fact, though rumors swirl in an environment where every bit of news is touted by the side it favors, a reporter could not verify that one bar, restaurant or club, of the more than 20,000 in the city, had closed solely because of the smoking ban.

In contrast, the owner-chef at Gotham Bar and Grill, Alfred Portale, says more people are dining at the pink granite bar, where the food is served on black lacquer trays. The bar at the Jazz Standard remains packed every night, its owner says. And the line only grows longer outside McSorley's Old Ale House, the original "wonderful saloon" chronicled by the writer Joseph Mitchell, though some patrons have grumbled that they miss having a Marlboro with their house ale.

"Believe it or not, it may be helping us because it's driving people to drink," said McSorley's owner, Matthew Maher.

The city's anti-smoking law was championed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who saw it as a health initiative to protect restaurant and bar workers from being exposed to secondhand smoke. In July, the state followed with an even tougher smoking ban.

Even if the city were to repeal its ban, the state's would remain in effect - something that has not seemed to make much difference to the smokers and businesses that continue to blame the mayor for their woes and lobby to have the city's law amended.

The ban does not appear to have deterred businesses from opening in New York City. The New York State Liquor Authority, which issues licenses to establishments that serve alcohol, received 127 applications from city businesses last month, compared with 126 in November last year. The number of licenses granted by the authority in that same period rose to 106 last month, from 75 the year before.

The city's Health Department, which enforces the smoking ban, has also analyzed monthly employment numbers and found no overall job loss in the food service and drinking industry. Critics have countered that such findings are politically motivated, and cannot show when establishments cut back shifts and absorb revenue losses. But many restaurants and bars refuse to divulge their finances, making it difficult to gauge the validity of their complaints.

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