May 8, 2006
Smoking Ban? Not in Astoria
New York City's Department of Health claims that three years into the smoking ban in all workplaces, there is 99% compliance citywide. Sure, you probably know a couple of bars that wait until after the time of night when inspectors usually check them out, then put out a few ashtrays. Unless you live in Astoria, Queens, where the "smoking ban" is taken about as seriously as Guilani's campaign against ferrets.
The Post reports today that "nine of the city's 12 worst violators were watering holes and eateries in Astoria that cater to smoke-happy Greek, Slavic and other European ethnics and Middle Easterners." Reporters from the Post went into Croatian bar Cafe Scorpio at Broadway and 36th Street, which with 11 violations of the smoking ban last year is the city's worst offender. They found pretty much everybody in the whole place smoking. The manager said, "My clientele are all smokers. It's a European crowd," during an interview in which a patron handed him a pack of cigarettes. At Cafe Valentino, also on Broadway, just about everybody was smoking, including the bartender, who offered the Post reporter an ashtray.
OK, so Europeans like their cigarettes. But what about the part of Astoria around Steinway Street, where the businesses are more Middle Eastern than Central European? In the multicultural wonderland of New York, people from all over the world can come together around their shared love of illicit smoking. The hookah cafes along Steinway, like the popular Al Sukaria Egyptian Cafe, are full of men smoking water pipes and drinking coffee, and there are so many of them that I had always assumed it was legal to smoke in those places. The smoking ban doesn't apply to establishments that derive a certain portion of their revenue from tobacco sales, though this exemption originally only applied to businesses that also serve alcohol. This mostly meant pretentious, expensive "cigar bars" in Manhattan, like Circa Tabac.
Since the clientele of Astoria's hookah cafes is mostly Muslim and therefore doesn't drink, the city later agreed to a cultural exemption from the alcohol rule. Even though Al Sukaria is supposed to fall under this exemption, the cafe still got hit with 10 smoking violations from the city last year. Like the Croatians and Greeks in other parts of Astoria, patrons at this cafe also claim a cultural right to smoke: "This is our culture. In America people meet in the home. In our culture we meet in a cafe."
It remains to be seen if the city will actually shut a business down for repeated smoking violations. Fines range from $200 to $2,000, and clearly some bars would rather pay up than enforce the law. Back when the ban started, some people suggested that a better solution might be to have a designated class of bar that could buy a smoking license, so that customers (and presumably employees) could choose which kind of bar to go to. Bloomberg would never admit it, but maybe that's what we've ended up with. The city's goal of protecting the health of all workers is admirable, but they probably really don't want to get into a battle of cultural sensitivity with largely immigrant populations in Queens. As long as business owners keep supporting their smoking patrons by paying the city fines, looks like the Euro kids can keep lighting up their Dunhills.
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