NEW YORK — The smoke hangs thick at Pete’s Tavern, swirling through the 138-year-old pub as the lunch-hour conversation turns to the mayor’s plan to ban smoking in thousands of bars and restaurants across the city.
“They did it in California, but everybody out there is a health nut,” said Phil Kraker, an accountant and a Pete’s regular. “They’re out jogging at four in the morning. Those people are crazy. This is New York.”
Depending on which smoker you ask, the proposal — which must still clear the City Council — is either a personal affront or an attack on the appeal of New York itself.
Bar patrons say they should have the option of savoring a cigarette with their cocktails, especially in a city that prides itself on its independence, not to mention its nightlife.
“New York is the capital of the world,” said Audrey Silk, founder of the smoker-rights group NYC CLASH. “The charm of New York is our differences. Now you want to create this bland, faceless city?”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg stirred up the controversy a week ago in calling for the ban. The former smoker said bars and restaurants have to protect their employees from harmful smoke, just as they do from toxins like asbestos.
New York already outlaws smoking in restaurants with more than 35 seats, but there is no restriction against smoking in bars or the bar area of any restaurant.
A ban would cover about 13,000 establishments and would be the most visible tobacco restriction since California issued a similar rule four years ago. About 400 communities nationwide have adopted smoking bans in restaurants, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.
Anti-smoking groups have sided with Bloomberg, but proprietors of bars and restaurants worry his plan will chase business away with the smoke.
Gerard Meagher, who manages the Old Town Bar near Union Square, tells customers cell phones are not welcome because they disturb the friendly pub atmosphere. But he said a smoking ban would be a mistake.
“The do-gooders are winning out,” Meagher said. “This is people who never had a fun time trying to take all the fun out of life.”
The debate is as much about culture as health, smokers say.
“People just like a smoke with their drink,” said Buster Smith, the white-haired manager at Pete’s. “Now they’re going to have to go outside. What do they do in the rain and snow?”
They might seek refuge in private clubs, or “smokeasies” as one puffer described them to The New York Times. Private clubs would be exempt from the proposed ban.
Ingl Kehrens, a visitor from Amsterdam who was puffing a cigarette at Connelly’s bar, questioned the logic of a ban. “How come you sell cigarettes but you don’t let people smoke them?” he asked.
Bloomberg is trying to discourage tobacco sales, too. Earlier this year, the city hiked its cigarette tax by more than $1, sending the price of a pack to $7.50 in some places. The city says the increase cut cigarette sales nearly in half.
Legislation aimed at improving the quality of life in the nation’s largest city has been a steady staple since 1994, when Rudolph Giuliani became mayor. He waged war against sex shops, panhandlers, squeegee men and even jaywalkers. But even Giuliani didn’t take on smoking.
Under Bloomberg’s plan, smokers who break the law may be fined $10 to $100 or be jailed up to 30 days.
City health inspectors would be responsible for enforcing a ban. There are no specific penalties for proprietors or employees.
The New York State Restaurant Association said it was reserving judgment on the plan until surveying its members.
After California’s ban took effect, many proprietors complained of lost business. But supporters of the measure pointed out that tax figures have not reflected a significant drop in business, and polls showed a majority of patrons backed the ban.
Johnny Stavern, a patron at Dave’s Tavern near Times Square, applauded Bloomberg’s proposal. “In restaurants especially, you’re there to eat and the smoke gets on everything — your clothes, your bags, everything.”
The mayor contends the ban will save employees and customers at bars and restaurants from secondhand smoke. He said an eight-hour shift for a bartender or waitress can be like smoking half a pack of cigarettes.
Smith, who has paced the floors of Pete’s greeting customers for more than three decades, doesn’t buy it.
“I just had an examination,” he said, “and my lungs are clear as a bell.”