If it really was about me, then it's just not working.
The new smoking ban in bars, that is. I'm among the demographic of non-smokers that was supposed to flood the New York State bar scene once the cigarette smoke was removed. Of course, it hasn't happened and never will.
In truth, I would have spoken sooner in these pages on this topic, save the fact that my good friends and colleagues, Mike Hudson and David Staba, hit it harder and more repeatedly than Lizzie Borden whacked her parents with that axe. Of course that fact surprises no one who knows Hudson and Staba. Besides writing the lion's share of the columns appearing in the Reporter, there is nothing else that those two put more effort into than sitting at a bar swilling the sauce and smoking cigarettes.
Far from being nonproductive members of society, however, Hudson and Staba simply engage in a prerequisite for a successful newspaperman -- gathering information at the source of most tips and leads.
I offer you these words as proof of that fact:
"Within a few blocks of virtually every large newspaper in the United States except The Christian Science Monitor, there is a saloon haunted by reporters, a saloon which also functions as a bank, as a sanitarium, as a gymnasium and sometimes as a home.
"A saloonkeeper is useful to a reporter because he can be interviewed about anything. This is an example: If a war breaks out anywhere in the world, an idea for a local story always takes form in the frenzied brain of the feature editor, and the idea is always the same. If the war is between Italy and Ethiopia, for instance, the idea is, 'How do the Italians in New York City feel about the war?' When a reporter is assigned to such a story he goes on a hurried tour of the gin mills in the nearest Italian neighborhood and in his story each saloonkeeper is identified as a 'community leader.'"
Mike Hudson or David Staba could easily have penned the words above, but it should not shock you to learn that they are excerpts from Joseph Mitchell's 1938 book, "My Ears Are Bent." Mitchell spent over 60 years in the newspaper game, writing for such legendary papers as the Herald Tribune and the World-Telegram, as well as serving as the elder statesman for "The New Yorker."
The point is that reporters have always penned the top stories in each newspaper perched atop a barstool, and that is why I don't write the hard news pieces for this paper -- I'm far too dry to be qualified. Which brings me back to where we jumped off together -- the smoking ban.
According to the drafters of this nonsensical piece of legislation, the ban was put into effect to do two things -- protect the health of non-smoking bartenders and barmaids and draw folks to taverns that had heretofore stayed away because of the threat of second-hand smoke. The good news for the puff-free bartenders and barmaids is that they no longer need run the risk of breathing in unwanted second-hand smoke. The bad news is that most of them are now unemployed, due to the fact that most barstools haven't seen a fanny since the new law went into effect.
As a lifelong non-drinker and non-smoker, I feel most qualified to comment on the effect that the law has had on the second group of people that legislators thought they were protecting when they voted "aye" on this resolution. In the 12 months leading up to the ban, I visited a drinking establishment a total of five times. Once was at the Reporter's annual party, held at Misty's in the Days Inn Riverview, and the other four times were to chat with Hudson and Staba at the newspaper's sub-office, housed inside the Press Box. Since the ban became effective, I've not been to a bar even once.
I am quite sure that I won't go to one either, at least not until the tourism season slows down and I have time to commiserate with my two boon companions. The fact that cigarettes are now verboten doesn't make saloons any more appealing to me -- in fact, it makes them less so. As my wife -- who has quit and restarted smoking more times than a California forest fire -- says, "Drinking and smoking just go together."
From a non-smoker, acute-observer-of-people point of view, I must confess that I enjoy watching folks smoke at a bar. With educated, engaging and articulate speakers like Hudson and Staba, the cigarette becomes almost an extension of themselves, used to accentuate points with a flourish -- much like the panache demonstrated by a baton-wielding maestro. A bar without cigarettes is like a bar without alcohol -- pointless.
Anyone who fancies himself a skilled observer of the local scene could have told the politicians that the smoking ban was a bad idea. It was just a few years ago that a jazz club opened on the corner of Third and Main streets. The owners did a wonderful job of restoring and decorating the building. They lined up top-quality jazz acts and spent a small fortune in advertising.
All seemed well, except for one not-so-minor detail. The club would be a non-smoking, non-alcohol venue that specialized in coffee. The out-of-business signs were on the windows within three months.
Howard Stern once did an interview with saxophonist Brandon Marsalis, just as the jazz great was considering leaving his gig as musical director of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." Marsalis told Stern that people in the jazz community were telling him that he was selling out by doing the show.
"I want you to repeat after me," Stern told Marsalis. "Jazz music minus 'The Tonight Show' equals welfare."
Marsalis didn't listen, left the show, and hasn't been heard of on the national stage since. In the case of the local jazz club, the math could have been described like this:
Jazz Club - Booze and Cigarettes = Bankruptcy.
None of these things are the reason that I wrote this column, however. The real reason that I am tackling this smoking ban issue in print goes by the name of Kathy Magliarditi. Last week Kathy asked me this question, "If I send you something will you write about it in the paper?"
"Depends what it is," I responded.
"Oh, you'll like it -- a lot," she answered.
Turns out she was right. The "it" that she referred to was a Web page entitled "My Smoker's Rights" at mysmokersrights.rjrt.com. If you go to the site and click on the New York State section, you'll find some very interesting information on the incredible impact that smokers make on our state's economy.
For instance, take a look at this information:
Keep in mind that our state is reeling financially -- to the point where Gov. George Pataki has put considerable pressure on legislators to find ways to generate income in their districts. When you have a sin tax that is generating over a billion dollars in yearly revenue, with very little complaint from those paying it, why in the world would you want to pass a law that would target the very place where most smokers prefer to light up?
The site also goes on to say that of the $4.72 average price of a pack of brand-name cigarettes, $2.63 -- or 56 percent -- goes to New York State taxes. Again, why fool with a golden cash cow like that?
If you think that drinkers could pick up the slack should people smoke less due to the ban, think again. According to R.J. Reynolds, 197.5 six-packs of beer or 400.6 bottles of wine must be sold to equal the amount of excise tax generated with the sale of just one carton of cigarettes.
The bottom line is that smokers in New York State pay the highest rate of tax for their habit of anyone in the nation. As a non-smoker, I'd like to say, "Thanks." Far from being happy about this ban, I want you to know that I'm going to lobby for not only a return to smoking in bars, but on airplanes as well. For any group that brings over $1 billion to a cash-poor state that would otherwise be slashing my services and raising my taxes, I say, smoke 'em if you've got 'em -- then smoke a few more.
This law has been an unmitigated economic disaster on three levels.
It's put thousands of bar workers on the unemployment line -- further taxing an already overburdened program. It's caused less cigarettes to be smoked because people are no longer sitting at the bar going through a pack or two, thus putting a hit on the excise tax numbers.
Finally, it's hurt the Quick Draw game revenue, because when the bars are empty, there is no one left to bet on the keno draw. It is only a matter of time before these economic concerns force lawmakers to concede that the law was passed in error and vote to return smoking to the state's inns, taverns and saloons.
For anyone running for re-election in November, they better hope that that day comes sooner rather than later, because smokers are red-hot over their loss of rights, and a politician's hope for another term may just go up in smoke.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||September 9 2003|