Smoky restaurants and offices and even smoke-filled bars, buses and trains are mostly a historical image in New York as the state marks the 10th anniversary of its landmark indoor smoking ban, which advocates say saved thousands of lives while most of its opponents’ worst fears blew away.
Few measures in Albany changed life in New York more.
“The passage of New York State’s Clean Indoor Air Act was a historic moment for public health,” said Blair Horner, vice president of advocacy at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “In 2002, the average New York bar or restaurant was essentially a hotbox of deadly carcinogens. For hospitality workers clocking an eight-hour shift, this was an incredibly dangerous situation.”
In the decade ending in 2009, smoking among New York adults declined from 22 percent to 17 percent. The share of smokers seeking to quit increased to 65 percent, from 54 percent.
But before that, it cost jobs and businesses, said the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, which sued the state over the ban on behalf of restaurant and bar owners who were “petrified by the law.”
But not for long.
“People lost their jobs and lost their businesses,” said association Executive Director Scott Wexler. “But in the long term, it did not have the impact the industry feared.”
For 18 months after the law was enacted, business dropped off and bars and restaurants closed or cut jobs as smokers stayed home or went to private clubs and fraternal groups.
Wexler said restaurants saw a 3 to 4 percent loss of business, while bars saw an 18 percent decline and the association lost 20 percent of its membership. Today, few owners complain unless they are in direct competition with private clubs or bars without outdoor patios where smoking is allowed. Business returned quickly, but most operators didn’t get the bump in business that anti-smokers predicted. Several operators did say new customers were attracted by the smoke-free environment.
“On the restaurant side of the business, our members are now saying the things the anti-smoking advocates said they would experience: It’s nice going home not smelling of smoke, it’s cheaper to keep the restaurant clean and they don’t know how they worked in a smoking environment before,” Wexler said.
The state Health Department is preparing updated data for release this week, when the indoor smoking ban and its $1,000 fines will be 10 years old on Wednesday.