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By David Staba

One month into "Smoke-Free New York," a few things are clear.

The non-smokers who were supposedly going to flood restaurants and bars once they weren't exposed to the horrors of second-hand smoke aren't going to such establishments any more than they did before July 24, when the nation's strictest indoor smoking ban took effect.

The idea that people who didn't enjoy the occasional cocktail would start doing so was preposterous from the get-go. Not to mention hypocritical, since it implied that one of the benefits of preventing people from smoking was to induce others to drink alcohol, the most devastating drug known to man.

The Big Lie propagated by anti-smoking activists was a cynical ruse used to sway the simple folk who populate the New York State Legislature, who become particularly gullible when their leaders get their pockets stuffed with lobbyist cash. They, in turn, used it as a feeble defense to ward off the ire of constituents furious that such a massive intrusion on private business owners was quietly rushed into law last spring.

Anyone who bought the Big Lie then was a sucker. Anyone who still expounds it is something far worse.

Scores of the service employees supporters of the ban claimed they want to protect are looking for jobs, because their old ones don't exist.

Some Niagara Falls establishments have laid off bartenders and waitresses due to flagging business. Others have cut back their hours of operation, meaning fewer hours of employment for their remaining workers.

Supporters of the ban change their rationale as often as George Bush alters his stated motivation for invading Iraq. But a pamphlet distributed by the state health department, "A Guide for Restaurants and Bars to New York State's Clean Indoor Air Act," makes the reasoning clear, at least at the moment it was printed:

"Why was the state clean indoor air act amended to include restaurants and bars?" one header asks.

"Waitresses have higher rates of lung and heart disease than any other traditionally female occupational group, according to a study published by the 'Journal of the American Medical Association,'" reads the answer. "According to the same report, one shift in a smoky bar is equivalent to smoking 16 cigarettes in a day."

Talk about wildly flawed logic. The AMA's findings regarding lung and heart disease rates may well be true, but blaming it on their jobs ignores how many waitresses smoke away from work in comparison with other "traditionally female occupational groups," whatever that means.

The only places around Niagara Falls even treading water since the ban are those with outdoor patio areas. But after Labor Day, when sitting outside without shelter -- and the law expressly forbids any sort of roof over any outdoor smoking area -- becomes much less appealing, the ban's true impact will be exponentially felt.

The ban has actually helped some businesses. Unfortunately for local entrepreneurs, they're located in neighboring states and on Seneca Nation land in downtown Niagara Falls.

An Associated Press report earlier this month detailed the spike in bar and restaurant business in the border areas of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Meanwhile, many local smokers report visiting the Seneca Niagara Casino more frequently, since the smoking police haven't attempted to extend the ban there. Yet.

People still smoke in bars where the owners are willing to take their chances.

And the odds of getting fined aren't nearly as short as the state would have you believe.

While no Niagara County business has yet been fined, the county Health Department, saddled by the state legislature with enforcing the law, isn't completely ignoring it, either.

One bar owner said a health inspector visited the establishment and said some snitch had called to complain about smoking in the place.

No one was smoking in the bar when the inspector got there, so she couldn't cite the bar owner, but said another complaint would mean another visit, and so on.

The law allows local health departments to provide hardship waivers, but Niagara County has yet to come up with guidelines for even applying for such an exemption, much less receiving it.

The state-printed pamphlet is equally vague on what to do if a customer insists on smoking.

"You or your staff must remind them of the Act and you may politely explain that they must step outside to smoke. If a customer refuses to comply with the Act, use common sense. The purpose of the Act is to protect others from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. DO NOT CALL the police unless the violator is threatening physical harm or is belligerent."

Use common sense? What does that mean? Let them smoke and risk a fine? Throw water on them? Make sure you get in the first punch?

Note the stress placed on not calling the police.

The message from state lawmakers couldn't be clearer -- we're going to make you chase away some of your best customers, we're not going to spend one penny to help enforce the law we claim is so crucial to the health of you and your employees, and you'd better like it.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com August 26 2003