Between the 14 flat-screen TVs in the bar room of Texas Arizona on River Street, an occasional cloud of smoke rises, dissipating as it hits a ceiling fan. A closer look reveals a steady, fainter stream from a cigarette in the hand of Andrew Reutter, 30, a musician from Newport, N.J. in town for a show.
Reutter takes an occasional drag as he sits comfortably at the bar, reading a newspaper as he waits for a friend. A beer is within reach, and Reutter’s coat hangs on the back of the barstool.
Reutter is aware that moments like this might not last. In fact, he and all of New Jersey’s smokers might be standing outside of bars and restaurants as early as March if they want to light up, because a statewide smoking ban might make it illegal to do so inside.
One step closer
That image has caused many of Hoboken’s bar and restaurant owners to have nightmares of lost revenue and lost jobs. And their concerns have now increased because New Jersey’s state Senate approved a smoking ban, moving it one step closer to law.
The “New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act,” approved recently in the Senate by a 29-7 vote, would ban smoking in “workplaces and indoor public places throughout the state,” including bars and restaurants.
Proponents for the bill said that the health of workers and patrons is far more important, and that the restaurant and bar owners’ economic concerns are not a reality.
The ban is an attempt to reduce “the real health implications associated with secondhand smoke for workers and patrons,” said State Senator Thomas H. Kean, Jr., a prime sponsor of the ban.
“The health effects of secondhand smoke are beyond dispute,” State Health Commissioner Fred M. Jacobs said. He said that the act is intended mainly to help employees who work eight to 10 hours in smoking environments. These workers are “exposed to a very high concentration of a Class A carcinogen,” he said.
The nonsmoking majority
“It gives me a headache sometimes,” said Alexis Pertgen, 22, a hostess at the Malibu Diner in Hoboken, as she stood at the cash register in the center of the smoking section. “I would rather it be nonsmoking.”
A recent study backed by the American Cancer Society and the New Jersey Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP) found high levels of dangerous pollution in smoking establishments throughout New Jersey. By monitoring the air in 50 restaurants, bars, bowling alleys and casinos, the study concluded that New Jersey’s smoking establishments were, “on average, 15 times more polluted than similar smoke-free sites.”
“The only choice a nonsmoker has is to not go out or hold their breath for 40 minutes,” said Regina Carlson, executive director of GASP. “This bill will protect the nonsmoking majority, it will protect kids from smoking and it will help smokers quit.”
Carlson said that the restaurant and bar owners’ economic concerns are unsupported. When smoking was banned in malls, businesses feared customers would go elsewhere, but the malls are “doing fine,” she said. She added that many bars and restaurants might experience increased business from nonsmokers who decide to go out more often. “Why ignore 82 percent of your customers?” she asked.
“I’ve been back [in Hoboken] for one week, and it’s extremely annoying,” Bartley O’Dwyer, 29, a nonsmoker from Hoboken said. He said that he doesn’t go to the bar for a drink after work because he feels he has to take a shower when he gets home.
“It prevents us from going out. If we just want to get one beer, we won’t go,” Cynthia Boland, 29, said as she stood next to O’Dwyer in the lobby of The Malibu Diner.
Carlson also referred to “The State of Smoke-Free New York City: A One Year Review,” a study issued by several government departments in the city. The study, which analyzed data one year after New York’s smoking ban started in July of 2003, said that business tax receipts from the city’s bars and restaurants increased, jobs were added, and the city issued more liquor licenses than it did in 2002.
However, other studies have shown conflicting results, and bar and restaurant owners remain concerned. They said that many studies do not account for individual establishments that might lose clients, especially those that have a large number of smokers who are regular customers.
Nick Babalis, the owner of The Malibu Diner, said that he expects to lose customers and add-on sales if the ban passes. He said that customers might not stay after a meal because they want to smoke, and he would lose sales because they might not get dessert or another drink. He added that every business should be allowed to “offer what they want.”
“We think the current law works,” said Deborah Dowdell, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, referring to the current law that allows businesses to establish nonsmoking sections voluntarily.
Dave Post, co-owner of Maxwell’s on Washington Street, agreed that the decision should be up to each establishment. “There are certainly many places in Hoboken to go if you don’t want to smoke,” he added.
Post said that he has seen additional business from across the Hudson since New York initiated its smoking ban.
“People are happy to see ashtrays,” said Kat Mathews, 24, a bartender at Maxwell’s who quit smoking a year ago.
“It’s part of it, and I expect it,” said Hoboken resident George Trapp, 34. He said that he and his friends do not go to New York as often as they used to because of the smoking ban. Trapp occasionally smokes cigars, but he considers himself a nonsmoker.
Randy Winslow, a general manager at Texas Arizona, said that the smoking ban might cause other problems. Instead of people leaving when the bar closes, neighborhoods will have to deal with rowdy, drunk people standing outside all night. Winslow said that the ban will increase problems with community issues such as noise, litter and vandalism.
Winslow said that instead of the ban, the state could regulate the air quality in bars and restaurants to ensure that it doesn’t reach unsafe levels. He said that bars could install improved ventilation systems. If a bar or restaurant failed to comply, then they could be fined.
Restaurant and bar owners also said that the ban is unfair because it does not prohibit smoking on casino floors. They said that the ban should exempt their establishments as well.
“It must be the whole state, or not the state,” Babalis said.
“It’s all wrong, just because they have stronger lobbying groups,” Post said.
“[The New Jersey Restaurant Association] would not oppose if it was statewide without exceptions,” Dowdell said. “We are committed to fight for fairness.”
State Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr. said that the exemption for casinos would not affect the business of bars and restaurants. “It really is a blanket bill…the ban affects restaurants in casinos also,” he said. “It’s a level playing field.”
He added, “There was bipartisan agreement on the amendment for casino floors.”
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