Smoke: And the Ban Played On
It is a typical evening at Lexington Bar and Books on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side, and the bar is awash in cool jazz and crowds of stylish men and women enjoying cocktails and Cabernets. However, something seems amiss. At the end of the bar, two young women, between sips of wine and bouts of laughter, lift smoldering cigarettes to their lips. In Manhattan, the sight of a smoker indoors is now nearly as rare as a taxi in a downpour.
In a city where a 300-pound hirsute man wearing a pink taffeta tutu would elicit yawns, the smoker lounging at a bar could be fodder for Ripley’s Believe It or Not. In recent years, smoking bans have been approved in cities and states across the country, from light restrictions in Alabama and Mississippi to the draconian measure in Davis, Calif., that prohibits smoking in outdoor parks. California, Delaware, Florida, and New York have instituted laws that ban smoking in virtually all indoor public places, including, most notably, restaurants and bars. In Florida, dozens of cigar companies succesfully lobbied the state legislature to allow their employees to continue smoking in the workplace. In an ironic twist, scores of owner-operated tobacconists in New York can permit smoking in their shops, but Alfred Dunhill on Fifth Avenue may no longer allow smoking in its second-floor humidor.
Denver and Las Vegas remain smoking-tolerant, and Chicago has been mired in a smokers’ versus nonsmokers’ rights debate since last year. Boston, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco are among the country’s smoking-stifled cities. Perhaps nowhere more than in New York City, however, is the ban viewed by smokers as a personal affront. After all, “My Way” could be this city’s anthem. “New York is so international, so European,” says Flavien Desoblin, general manager of Lexington Bar and Books, a haven for cigar smokers. “I could understand another city, but New York?”
Last year, Zagat listed 55 cigar-friendly restaurants in New York City. So far this year, cigars have been snuffed from more than 50 of them, including FiftySeven FiftySeven at the Four Seasons, Gallagher’s, Morton’s, Smith & Wollensky, and Frank’s Steakhouse (which contains a separate, ventilated smoking area). Dedicated cigar bars such as Lexington Bar and Books, Club Macanudo, and the Grand Havana Room remain, for the moment at least, New York’s steadfast scenes for those who wish to socialize with fellow lovers of the leaf. “I always thought America was about freedom, about your right to decide,” says Desoblin. “I just don’t get it.”
Smokers are not alone in their suffering. Although the city’s department of health disputes these claims, restaurant and bar owners throughout Manhattan blame a significant decline in revenue on the smoking ban. They say that it is driving away a large portion of their clientele, some of whom now travel across the Hudson for an after-work cocktail and smoke.
While troubling, the situation is not hopeless, says Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America in Washington, D.C. “Any extreme movement has the seeds of its own demise,” he notes. “I think the pendulum will swing back toward reason and compromise.”