Blowing Smoke At Bar Owners

The first thing you should know about Ciaran Staunton is that he doesn’t smoke. The second thing you should know is that Mr. Staunton runs a small business that may go under if Mayor Bloomberg’s smoking ban becomes law.

Mr. Staunton runs a pub called O’Neill’s on Third Avenue in midtown. It’s a place where Irish and British sports fans watch their favorite soccer teams on television, and where Sinn Fein supporters gather periodically to follow election returns from Ireland and Great Britain. Gerry Adams, a friend of Mr. Staunton, regularly hosts press briefings in O’Neill’s. Irish immigrants, and other European visitors, go to O’Neill’s to drink, to socialize, to organize … and to smoke.

But perhaps not for long.

“Are there any jobs out there for a sheep-shearer? I used to do that for a living,” said Mr. Staunton, who grew up in Ireland. He was kidding, but only a little, because he fears for the future of his business and businesses like his.

The Mayor has proposed a ban on smoking in all bars and small restaurants-establishments that have been exempt from the city’s already-tough smoking regulations. The proposal, Mr. Staunton says, “will be the third strike for mom-and-pop businesses. First there was the recession, then Sept. 11 and now this. We’ve already taken a big hit from the decline in tourism. Now the Mayor wants us to kick out smokers.”

Mr. Bloomberg detests cigarettes. So do I. Few sights dishearten me more than that of young people dangling a butt in their hands. I come from a family of smokers, and I’ve seen a friend die of lung cancer at age 40, after half a lifetime of smoking. I’ve been tempted to invite some of my young colleagues and friends to family occasions so they can hear for themselves what a smoker’s cough sounds like after 50 or 60 years of nicotine addiction.

That said, my sympathies are with people like Mr. Staunton, who operates a small business that is not and never will be confused with a health club. He runs a bar, and in that bar he sells beer, wine and whiskey-products that are not necessarily associated with clean living and, in fact, have been known to promote their own form of addiction. The Mayor thus far has said nothing about a ban on drinking in bars, but perhaps that’s not far off. (Short-order cooks, those purveyors of grease and fat, should be monitoring these developments.)

“What’s disappointing is that this Mayor is a smart businessman, which is one of the reasons why many people in the restaurant and food-service business supported him,” Mr. Staunton said. “Many of us believed he understands the problems of running a business. Instead, he’s promoting legislation that would hurt our businesses.”

Mr. Staunton helped lead a campaign several years ago that blocked Peter Vallone’s anti-smoking proposals from becoming law. Those measures, Mr. Staunton said, were less draconian that Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal, and then-Mayor Giuliani made it clear early on that he would veto the bill. This time around, the Mayor himself is leading the crusade, a Mayor who has shown a talent for getting things done. “As you can see with other Mayoral initiatives, he has been very successful,” Mr. Staunton said. “That’s why this is different from the Vallone proposal.”

Both sides are throwing around figures and poll results, and Mr. Staunton has done some unscientific but interesting surveys himself. His brother worked as a bartender in San Francisco when California banned smoking in bars. His tips, Mr. Staunton said, fell by 30 percent. He anticipates a similar decline in New York if Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal becomes law.

“The anti-smoking side says that we’ll get new customers if we don’t allow smoking,” he said. “That means getting rid of our current customers in hopes of getting potential customers. Do they teach that in Business 101? That’s not something I ever learned.”

New Yorkers who wish to dine or drink in a non-smoking room have no shortage of choices. Smokers, on the other hand, have relatively few. Perhaps that’s how it should be, but surely even smokers should have some place where they can indulge and socialize at the same time. Nobody forces me or non-smokers like me to go to places like O’Neill’s, where I’ll be subjected to secondhand smoke. It’s a choice I make, and, to an extent, it’s a choice the bartenders and staff make.

Mr. Staunton says it’s up to the workers to organize against the Mayor’s proposal. Mr. Bloomberg claims to be speaking and acting on their behalf; if they disagree, Mr. Staunton said, “now is the time to speak up.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Staunton and other bar owners will take their case to individual City Council members and their staffs. Mr. Staunton has one question for them: “Who will be the advocate for family-owned businesses?”

Thus far, there are no takers.

Blowing Smoke At Bar Owners