By JENNIFER PELTZ | AP
NEW YORK (AP) — A decade after the city stubbed out smoking in bars and restaurants, Mayor Michael Bloomberg applauded the ban Wednesday as a turning point in a movement to reduce smoking, even as he embarks on a new push to put cigarettes under wraps in local stores.
The ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and other indoor public spaces took effect 10 years ago, toward the beginning of Bloomberg's tenure and what became a string of efforts to use the law to improve New Yorkers' health habits, from setting high taxes on cigarettes to trying to limit the size of sugary sodas.
Bloomberg's administration and public health advocates praise the initiatives as bold moves to help people live better, but the measures also have netted criticism — at least initially — as intrusive and bad for business.
Standing Wednesday in a 121-year-old Manhattan tavern, Bloomberg said the ban has proved to be a boon to both health and businesses.
"There were dire predictions about how the law would lead to job losses and impact revenue," he said. But 10 years later, "I think it's safe to say: When you look at the numbers, the Smoke-Free Air Act is one of the best things that's ever happened to our restaurant and bar and tourism industry."
The city now has 6,000 more bars and restaurants than before the ban took effect, a 47-percent increase, the mayor said.
Gerard Meagher, co-owner of Old Town, the venerable Manhattan bar where the mayor spoke, initially opposed the ban.
"I thought it would ruin the atmosphere," he recalled Wednesday.
But "once the law was passed, I saw some benefits from it," he said. Chandeliers no longer become brown from smoke; mirrors don't get as dirty; air conditioning filters need to be changed less often.
Meanwhile, health officials say the city has about 500,000 fewer smokers than a decade ago, and they estimate about 10,000 premature, smoking-related deaths have been prevented during that time. Non-smokers also have benefited from not having to inhale secondhand smoke, officials note.
While New York City's smoking ban wasn't the first of its kind — California, among other places, already had such a rule — the mayor suggested the publicity surrounding the city's law spread the idea. More than 500 U.S. cities, 35 states and 49 countries have passed similar laws, by his count.
By forcing bar and restaurant patrons to leave to light up, New York's ban has "changed, fundamentally, the way New Yorkers view smoking," city Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said. "I think we all recognize that smoking is socially unacceptable, compared to what it was 10 years ago."
Some smokers' views, at least, haven't changed. To Audrey Silk, who founded a smokers-rights group that sued unsuccessfully to try to block the ban, it was a harbinger of what she sees as the city's efforts "to redefine what's normal."
"Smoking has been legal and accepted for centuries," she added.
Her group, New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, argued in its lawsuit that the measure impinged on the First Amendment right to assemble and other constitutional freedoms. A federal court ruled for the city in 2004, saying that smoking wasn't inherently necessary to socializing.
Over the years, the city went on to help impose the highest cigarette taxes in the country, bar smoking at parks and on beaches and conduct sometimes graphic advertising campaigns about the hazards of smoking.
Still, the habit remains the top cause of preventable deaths in the city. And the mayor, who has donated $600 million of his personal fortune to anti-smoking efforts worldwide, remains determined to try to curb it in New York in his final months in office. For his own part, he last had a cigarette in 1982 or 1983, he said.
Last week, Bloomberg unveiled a proposal to keep cigarettes out of sight in stores until an adult customer asks for a pack, coupled with measures that would end discounts and other buying incentives on cigarettes. All are now awaiting a City Council hearing.
Tobacco companies and convenience store owners have attacked the proposals as unfair and perhaps unconstitutional.
At Bloomberg's urging, the city has compelled chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, barred artificial trans fats in restaurants, prodded food manufacturers to use less salt, and promoted breast-feeding over infant formula. It plans to embark on a campaign to warn young people that they risk hearing loss from cranked-up earphones.
Last fall, the city Board of Health passed the first U.S. rule limiting the size of sugary drinks; it applied in many eateries. A court struck down the rule this month, but the city is appealing and Bloomberg has urged voluntary compliance in the meantime.