Today in NYC History: Mayor Bloomberg’s Smoking Bans Kicks In (2003)

Smoke Ban AmusingHistory remembers bold moves. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called his 2002 restaurant and bar smoking ban one of the most important things he had done in his life. It took effect 12 years ago, on March 30, 2003.

Cigarettes and second-hand smoke had long been known to be unhealthy. In 1990, Governor Mario Cuomo pass the New York Clean Indoor Air Act, which banned smoking in stores, taxis, certain restaurants, and schools (!). Five years later, Mayor Giuliani enacted a much tougher smoke ban, which exempted only small restaurants, restaurants with separately ventilated smoke rooms, and bars. Council Speaker Peter Vallone pushed for the ban to include all restaurants several years later, leaving bars alone, but Giuliani defeated the bill. By 2002, several small cities, along with California, had enacted comprehensive bans.

Mayor Bloomberg’s plan was set to kick in at midnight on March 30, 2003, a quiet Sunday night. Patrons bitterly smoked away and offered doomsday predictions. Some called the decision “Stalinesque,” the ushering in of “no fun city.”

Some posited that restaurants and bars would fail, or that they would simply ignore the law. In time, neither of those predictions came to pass, and the law soon had 60% support. (Although, in a classic case of unintended consequences, the owner of McSorley’s claimed that smokers were being driven to drink more by the ban.)  The smoking ban was paired with steep increases on New York City’s cigarette taxes, which seriously dented sales.

Since 2003, smoking bans have spread like wildfire, alongside gay marriage and legalized medical marijuana. So you can now smoke more things at an outdoor gay wedding, but fewer things at an indoor one. Full bans have been passed in 28 states, and partial or local bans have passed in every other state except Oklahoma, which bans smoking bans. The measure has also become popular across the world, on every continent.

I once opposed the law for the same reasons many others did – it seemed to be an overstepping of government controlling peoples’ behavior. Indeed, even the success of the smoking ban, now widely emulated, couldn’t help Mayor Bloomberg shake the “nanny-state” image that reemerged with a vengeance during the sugary soda debate. Over time, however, it became clear to me that the upside provided by cigarettes in general was so low that it should not outweigh the smell, let alone the health risks, associated with smoking. Like most of our friends, we do not permit smoking inside our apartment.

The smoking ban had another tangential impact: it created a class of fellow travelers who needed to share trips outdoors to smoke. While this crew can come off snide, like an exclusive club, there is little to envy about them in the winter.

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