Marlboro Country It Ain't

Patrick Ford mixes a scotch and water and surveys the crowd at Wollensky's Grill, a popular steakhouse and watering hole in midtown Manhattan. It's a little thin, even for a Monday night. But this is no ordinary Monday. It's Day One of New York City's Smoke-Free Air Act, which severely restricts smoking in the city's 13,000 or so restaurants. "Our policy is, it's against the law," says Ford, a Wollensky's bartender. "But I'm no policeman," he adds, as a customer lights up down the bar.

So begins one of the most closely watched experiments in smoking prohibition. After months of debate and fruitless lobbying by restaurants and tobacco interests, legislation passed by the New York City Council last December kicked in on Apr. 10. It imposes strict new bans on smoking in such public places as offices, stadiums, and bingo parlors. But in this epicurean city, it's the restaurant industry that has been the center of debate.

BELLWETHER. The Big Apple is not the first city to impose such restrictions: Since the mid-1980s, some 165 antismoking ordinances have passed nationwide. And New York's law is hardly one of the strictest: It exempts restaurants of under 35 seats and allows, under certain conditions, smoking in bars and enclosed rooms. But the law is seen by many as a bellwether. Says Clark Wolf, co-owner of the tony Markham restaurant: "People in other cities will pay attention if this ban really gets enforced."

Making New York's Smoke-Free Air Act actually work could be problematic. The ordinance is vaguely worded, and restaurant owners are interpreting it to suit their situations. "Two owners and two night managers have read and reread [the Act], and we still don't know what we will do," said Richard Schinenti, the exasperated manager of Cedar Tavern on the eve of the ban.

How the law will be enforced isn't any clearer. Restaurants can be fined up to $1,000 for a single violation, but it probably will be left to customers to report infractions. And an informal survey of restaurants after the ban found plenty of patrons smoking happily.

MIXED MOOD. For now, indeed, the potential economic impact is hazy. Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a lobbying organization, cites a study published last year in the American Journal of Public Health that showed no impact on restaurant sales in 15 California and Colorado cities with smoke-free laws. But the industry-funded Tobacco Institute says that some municipalities, including Wake County, N.C., Northampton, Mass., and Novato County, Calif., have rescinded smoking bans in part because diners simply went to neighboring areas that allowed smoking.

At Wollensky's, the mood is mixed. "If I knew I couldn't relax and have a cigarette, I wouldn't come here," says regular Cindi Davis. Another patron disagrees. What to do? Cedar Tavern's Schinenti has an idea. Picking up an unused ashtray, he asks: "I wonder if we can serve escargots in these things?"

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