Five years after New York became one of the first major world cities to ban smoking in public places, nearly a quarter of a million people have kicked the habit and tobacco-related deaths have dropped significantly.
The feared economic impact on bars and restaurants failed to materialize and cities from London to Hong Kong have since followed suit, leaving die-hard smokers feeling more marginalized than ever before.
AdvertisementUnder a grandfather clause in the ban, which came into effect on March 30, 2003, a few bars and private clubs were allowed to let customers continue to smoke and have since become a last refuge for smokers craving the old days.
"It's nice to be able to get off work, go to a bar, have a beer and smoke a cigarette," said Paul Godwin, 29, a designer from South Carolina, dragging on a Marlboro Red while sitting in "Karma," a bar in Manhattan's East Village.
The bar looks much like any other, except for a big sign on the door reading "Cigarette Smoking Permitted" and ashtrays liberally scattered on the bar. It is one of the few bars to have been granted a tobacco license by the city.
"Before I came here, I'd stop at this other place, because the bar tender was hot. But I can't smoke in there, so I called my buddy and that's why we're here now," said Leonard Andrade, a carpenter originally from Massachusetts.
"We're definitely discriminated against," he said. "Everybody should have a choice."
When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a former smoker, put forward proposals to ban smoking in bars, restaurants and offices, critics issued dire warnings of mass opposition and labeled the ban a disaster waiting to happen.
The New York Post met the news with the headline "Bar Humbug."
Restaurant and club owners feared the ban would drive away business and force them to lay off thousands of workers, while smoking activists described the measures as an over-the-top reaction that stripped away their rights.
"It reminds me a lot of 1984 and Big Brother," Godwin said of the ban. "It's a control thing."
But the gloomy predictions failed to materialize. Bars and restaurants saw business increase in the first year of the ban, while a survey found 90 percent of people reporting they ate out as often or more often than before the ban.
Between 2002 and 2006 -- the last year for which figures are available -- the number of smokers in the city fell by some 240,000 to around one million.
The number of smoking-related deaths meanwhile fell more than 11 percent from 8,722 to 7,744 during the same period.
Of particular note, fewer kids were taking up the habit, with the number of smokers among New York high school students falling by 50 percent, from 18 percent of the school population to less than one in ten between 2001 and 2007.
"If you can make people decide to quit by making it harder to grab a drink and smoke at the same time, it's obviously not a bad idea," said Godwin, with one key proviso.
"If people who want to smoke can still come to a bar like this and do it, then obviously that's a good thing," he said. "Smoking cigarettes is part of the American culture," he added.
Bloomberg has always rejected criticisms that the law was an example of a nanny state rolling back personal liberties, insisting the ban was introduced to protect employees from the dangers of second-hand smoke.
"This law does not legislate morality. This law does not take away anyone's rights. This law allows working people to earn a living in a safe workplace," the mayor said when the legislation was first put forward.
Despite being strongly in favor of the right to smoke, Andrade said he was keen to stub out the habit. "As pro as I am, I want to quit really bad. My son started smoking, he's 19, and I preach to him. It's not good, it obviously isn't good."
The 43-year-old started smoking when he was a teenager. He said initiatives to reduce smoking, such as increasing the tax on tobacco, just annoyed smokers and pushed them towards cheaper alternatives like roll-your-own cigarettes.
"The only reason I think about quitting is for my health, what it's doing to me, waking up with that, you know," he said, making a grating, guttural rasp.
He said graphic television advertisements showing the damage done by smoking helped drum home the message. But not for Godwin, however. "I don't want to see that stuff. I change the channel," he said.
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