The rain was light but steady, forcing most patrons indoors. The tables on the patio were empty and the waitress sat at the outdoor bar with a bored expression. The only people joining her were a few brave smokers, crowded underneath the awning that covers the bar as they alternated between puffing their cigarettes and sipping cocktails in plastic cups and light beers.
This is a common scene ever since the city of Boston banned smoking in all restaurants and bars in May. The only exemptions are for cigar bars and outdoor seating areas, the latter something many establishments have been able to take advantage of due to the time of year that the regulation took effect. Even with this summer’s unseasonably wet weather, smokers have continued to look for places where they could eat and drink outside in order to smoke.
Three months into the smoking ban, smokers are still puffing away but a little damper than usual. Not long after the rain scared most of the non-smoking patrons off the patio of the bar described above, waitresses and bartenders themselves would periodically belly up to the bar for a drag — the very employees this ban is supposed to protect from the scourge of secondhand smoke from their customers.
Places that aren’t as fortunate to have outdoor sections for their patrons usually have large numbers of smokers milling around their doorways, dropping cigarette butts on the sidewalks outside. On a busy night at Clery’s on Dartmouth St., they spill into the alley. Some look at their watches and dash back inside to retrieve their brief cases, bags and laptops and then come back out to run down the street to catch their commuter rail trains at Back Bay Station.
Although new to the bars, it really isn’t that unfamiliar a sight. Smoking is prohibited in most other workplaces based on a similar public health rationale. Outside any major office building on any given weekday, you will encounter people on “smoke breaks” of varying lengths. They shiver out there during the winter, sweat during the heat, struggle to light their cigarettes in the rain and otherwise brave whatever elements they come into contact with now that the nanny state has forced them into contact with Mother Nature. Yet there numbers are never so great as at the bars, which seem to draw disproportionately from smokers as customers, augmented by people who only smoke when they enjoy alcoholic beverages, a group that seems to be dominated by young women.
Such spectacles tend to provoke a visceral reaction in people closely tied to their feelings about smoking. Tolerant folks, particularly ex-smokers who remember the difficulty with which they broke the habit, shake their heads sympathetically. Many commiserate with the assembled hordes under their clouds of smoke, decrying the rules as stupid and unjust. Others who share the anti-smoking sentiments of the Boston Public Health Commission look at them with disgust approaching contempt. “Look at how they need to smoke,” I recently overheard a woman hiss to her friend on the way inside a pub. “Pathetic!” (This same woman became heavily intoxicated and threw up all over herself in front of everyone before leaving.)
Boston’s smoking ban hasn’t generated the same amount of national attention as the similar edict in New York City. For this, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has earned the epithet “Nurse Bloomberg,” while “Hizzoner” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who is equally supportive of his city’s ban, hasn’t been so labeled. Bostonians are used to New Yorkers upstaging us. There is that little matter of the pennant. Although each year we hope it will turn out differently, and this year it doesn’t seem a groundless hope, the Yankees have fared better in post-1918 World Series than our beloved Red Sox. New York also gets to host the Republican National Convention in 2004, while we have to settle for the Democrats.
In the city that never sleeps, we hear stories about fights with bouncers, people lighting up as they shout “F-k Bloomberg,” and even anecdotes about the emergence of “smoke-easies” where people are permitted to smoke in defiance of the ban. In Boston, home of that famous Tea Party, there have been fewer reports of open rebellion. There’s the occasional violation, the person moved to tear down a no-smoking sign. The only smoking-related fights with restaurant or bar employees I’ve seen personally are at clubs where people who have gone outside for a cigarette were denied re-admittance.
But Boston has always had Byzantine smoking regulations, so perhaps people are resigned to it or even like the new clarity. The smoking and non-smoking sections at some restaurants and bars seemed totally arbitrary. A friend sitting at the table next to mine at a restaurant got up to greet me, only to be sharply instructed to put out his cigarette. He was allowed to smoke at his table, but my table just a few steps away was non-smoking. At the bar, most of the seats were smoking, but the person sitting on the corner was deemed too close to the non-smoking section to be allowed to smoke.
A less intrusive reform would have been to mandate that all bars and restaurants be either entirely smoking or entirely smoke-free. Smokers would patronize the former while people prefer a non-smoking environment would opt for the latter. Employees would choose the type of environment they wanted to work in. The marketplace would decide to what extent various establishments went which way.
Instead, they opted for a more heavy-handed approach. The impact on business has varied from place to place. Clarke’s saloon used to be the only place in South Station where people waiting for a train could go to smoke. Once inside, they often decided they wanted a beer or a cheeseburger. No more. Such potential patrons have been shoved outside. Some taverns fear they are losing business to neighboring Cambridge and Quincy.
Yet Boston is not alone. Some 78 Massachusetts communities prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants to some degree while a bill backed by state Senate Health Committee Chairman Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge) would impose a statewide ban. Public health service announcements in the commonwealth often proclaim that it’s “time we made smoking history.” Bay State bar owners and restauranteurs, already struggling with a tough economy, are left to hope prohibitionists won’t make their profit margins history, too.
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