Personally, I think smoking sucks. Whether it’s a cigarette, cigar or pipe, it doesn’t matter – they all stink. They all make you sick.
My father smoked a pipe for more than 40 years and then one day in the 1980s he just stopped, went cold turkey, and to the best of my knowledge has never smoked a pipe again. Growing up, whenever our family went on long road trips, my brother Chuck and I always ended up in the back seat of the family’s station wagon – facing backwards – watching the countryside blur past. In addition to the disorienting view, we were occasionally treated to strong blasts of smoke from my Dad’s pipe. He was almost always the driver, and he loved to smoke his pipe during long road trips. He tried to be considerate and would crack his window and blow the smoke out as best he could. Usually, most of it would get sucked outside.
But there were times when one of my older brothers had their window down in the seat directly behind my father, and the whole blast would do laps around the inside of the station wagon.
I’m not sure if it was the disorienting motion of watching the world blur backwards at 65 m.p.h., or the smoke, or a combination of the two, but I was car sick more times than I care to remember.
During our teenage years every kid across America was bombarded with messages about cigarette smoking and being cool. Every other commercial on TV was a cigarette message; ‘Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should”, “Come to Marlborogh Country”…
We couldn’t escape the message – if you wanted to be cool, you needed to smoke. Many of the cool movie stars in the 1940s and 1950s; Humphry Bogart, James Dean and John Wayne, were on screen chimneys.
Me? The only cigarette I ever recall smoking was a discarded stub my brother George and I found in the gutter in Coronado, California. I was in third grade and we lit it up, took a couple of long deep breaths, and gagged our way home dizzy and red-eyed.
Smoking was not for me.
Playing sports in high school, and a few years in college, made it easy to stay away from cigarettes, I was in training. But during my last few years in college I started working in bars and pubs around UConn, and Hartford, and would come home every night smelling like smoke and stale beer. Working inside a bar for six or eight hours, without drinking, can be a real mind bender as you watch the patrons get increasingly louder, and sloppier. My chief complaint wasn’t the noise or lunacy, it was the smoke. My clothes, hair and beard absorbed the vapors, and my mouth and tongue had a nasty after-taste as if I had smoked a pack of Camels myself.
By the end of the night my eyes were red and I needed to go home and take a shower at 2 AM to cleanse myself. After a few months I decided I wanted no part of the working night life. From now on I would drink a couple of beers and move on. If a bar was too smoky, I wouldn’t stay.
The first office job I had was in 1987 when I began working at the Litchfield Enquirer. The newsroom was very small, not much bigger than a dining room, and two of the six workers smoked all day long. One of them was my boss. It was a horrible situation and I spent as many hours as possible out of the office taking photographs and interviewing subjects. I avoided being in the office when the two chimneys were smoking up a storm. I worked early in the mornings, late at night, or on the weekends. I was delighted when non-smokers began to have rights in the 1990s, and smokers across the country were forced to step outside to foul their lungs.
Despite the change in most workplaces, smoking in restaurants and bars continued unabated. It was irritating. I was tired of having smoke waft past my face at 7 AM from the patron at the next table while I was trying to read a newspaper, eat some eggs, and slurp down a hot cup of coffee. Many smokers, I concluded, were oblivious to the ill effect their smoke had on people not inclined to puff away. Many times I would change seats, or move to another table in the restaurant.
A few times I got up and left.
Finally, a few years ago the Connecticut State Legislature passed a law forbidding smoking in restaurants (2003) and bars and cafes (2004). I was delighted. It was about time.
Smokers now had to step outside to smoke in what was designed to protect the workers inside the bar or restaurant from second hand smoke. As well intentioned as the law was, the state legislature screwed it up. They left a loophole in the law that a herd of wild elephants could stomp through. The law banned smoking in bars and restaurants, but allowed private clubs to do as they pleased.
So what do you suppose happened? Did the bar customers go outside to smoke? Some did, but thousands of hard drinking, hard smoking customers simply took their business to a private club where they could continue their vices in peace. Private clubs are everywhere. They’re the fraternal organizations; the Eagles, the Elks and the VFW. They’re the ethnic clubs; the German, the Polish, the Irish and the Portuguese clubs.
After the law went into effect the membership at the fraternal and ethnic organizations swelled, and business in many bars and cafes took an immediate nose dive. Hundreds of businesses across Connecticut were hurt, and a few of them decided to do something about it.
Enter John Woermer, owner of the Old Corner Cafe in Naugatuck. He banded together with a few other business owners and they have filed suit claiming the law is unfair. If you are going to ban smoking from restaurants, bars and cafes, they argue, then you have to include the private clubs as well.
“It’s an uneven playing field,” Woermer said. “The law is suppose to protect the workers, but don’t the clubs have workers too. They actually have more smokers in the clubs now, so the workers there are subject to a greater health danger. Doesn’t anybody care about their health?”
To Woermer, this isn’t a case of health, though, but of economic disparity. If the law included all the private clubs in the smoking ban it would be fairly applied to smokers everywhere in Connecticut. But when you forbid customers from smoking in the Old Corner Cafe, but say its okay to light up at the Portuguese Club a mile away, it’s not a fair law.
“The clubs saw in immediate increase in sales,” Woermer said. “And my bottom line is down for three years in a row. I am not alone.”
Woermer said many of his long-time customers, including friends, relatives and his own help, go elsewhere now so they can smoke and drink inside. “Can you blame them?” he said.
As Woermer became more involved, and informed, he was shocked at what he discovered. “It is against the law to smoke on state property,” he said, “except for these private smoking rooms inside the state capital.”
Woermer, who doesn’t smoke, believes the fairest way to resolve the smoking issue is to do one of two things. “I think the best answer is make it a matter of choice,” he said. “If you want to run a smoke free business, great, if you don’t, well that’s a matter of choice. Leave it up to the owner and the customers to sort it out.”
The other way to resolve the issue is to ban smoking in restaurants, bars, cafes and private clubs. “If you are going to ban smoking you can’t be selective about it,” Woermer said. “You have to include the private clubs as well.”
Woermer said he has talked to some bar owners who have allowed their customers to continue smoking. “They have to do it or they will lose everything they have worked all their lives for,” Woermer said. “These are good, honest, decent people, who are breaking the law so they can hold onto their business. They have been placed in this unfair situation by an unfair law.”
According to Woermer there have been six bars in Naugatuck that have gone out of business since the law went into effect. ‘Everybody pays dues at the clubs and they pay no taxes,” Woermer said. “They have an unfair advantage.”
Woermer admits he’s in a tough fight to try and get the law rescinded. “It would be great if we could talk to the people at the legislature and they listened,” Woermer said. “But other than Lenny Green (state rep from Beacon Falls), I feel like we’ve been talking to a brick wall.”
Ironically, Woermer said, he pays $1750 a year for a liquor license, but the private clubs are considered not-for-profit and they pay $400 for their liquor license. The whole thing doesn’t make sense to him.
When asked if he feels a bit like David against Goliath, Woermer laughed. “David had a chance, he had a weapon,” Woermer said. “And he faced only one Goliath. We have to take on the state legislature, public opinion, the court system and the anti-smoking lobby. But the state has replaced bad laws before, and we hope they will do so again.”
The case has encountered some scheduling problems, but last Autumn the state supreme court took the case away from the appellate court, a move that Woermer thinks might help his case. It seems the suit will eventually have its day in court.
“Most of the people who think the smoking ban is great are not my customers,” Woermer said. “And most of those people don’t understand how this ban is hurting us. They think the smoker just goes outside and lights up. That’s not true. They are finding another place to drink and smoke and it’s killing the bar business. It’s just not fair.”
The intent of the law is good, and as a non-smoker I congratulate the state legislature for trying to wrestle this wretched issue to the ground. But John Woermer is right, the law needs to be changed. It is ineffective and unfair.
This is not an issue of whether it’s healthy for people to work around smoke, or whether smoking is a wise choice to make. This is about closing a massive loophole in a well-intentioned state law that is devastating hundreds of businesses around Connecticut.