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Bite Me

Matthew Strauss

Bistro Adde Brewster (see review, page 71) is no longer on the front lines of the smoking war. Owner Adde Bjorklund's attempt to take his subterranean Cherry Creek digs non-smoking was just a recon mission, a bold foray into enemy territory to check the disposition of the other side's forces. It was a short-lived experiment -- the new house rules lasted only four months before smokers were again free to light up at the bar -- but a prescient one. "The regulars who came in after work? They were gone almost immediately," one of the bartenders told me when I dropped in for a drink and a smoke. "And the non-smokers weren't exactly lining up at the door."

Unlike in Boulder, Montrose, Louisville and seven other Colorado communities (including Fort Collins, the newest hash mark in the anti-smoking victory column), there's no law -- yet -- in Denver forcing Adde Brewster to chase away paying customers. But it's coming, thanks to the do-gooding troops currently rallying around the battle flag of Smoke-Free Denver and marching in lockstep behind a petition signed by about 3,000 of the local faithful. The vanguard is mobilizing, even now pressuring Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment to draft a proposal to put before Denver City Council. What do they want? They're after your cigarettes, pal, and they're going to protect you whether you like it or not.

The stated aim of Smoke-Free Denver is to have a blanket ban placed on all smoking in all public places, including a smoke-free zone stretching out twenty feet from any door or window. This is their only acceptable solution; there is no room for compromise. "The model ordinance, the only plan they've got, is a complete ban. That's where they're starting," says Pete Meersman, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association. The CRA's official argument against such a blanket ban is primarily economic. For starters, because of the way Denver and its suburbs are laid out, "the issue should be addressed statewide," according to Meersman. If only Denver prohibits smoking in restaurants and bars, a joint that does allow smoking would be just a short drive away in any direction, in Aurora or Lakewood or Glendale. While the 'burbs might see business pick up, the core city would be left cold turkey. "That's why our Denver members are so worried," says Meersman. "I think it would be prudent for Denver City Council to take a hard look at what this will do to the local operators." And that would include thousands of bars and restaurants in Denver.

Leading the charge on the other side is Bob Doyle, chairman of Smoke-Free Denver and director of tobacco control for the Colorado chapter of the American Lung Association. According to Doyle, this is less an issue of economics than it is a fight for the health and safety of food-service workers and a direct response to what he sees as most residents' overwhelming desire to never associate with smokers under any conceivable circumstance...ever. "Should workers be protected from secondhand smoke?" Doyle asks. "The trend is definitely in our favor. Breathing in cancer-causing and poisonous chemicals should never be a condition of employment."

So, from bars and restaurants to bowling alleys and bingo halls, anyplace where more than two people might want to get together and have a good time is disputed turf. Why? Because Smoke-Free Denver knows what's best for us, and once they've had their way with the restaurant and bar owners, patted each other on the back and congratulated themselves for rescuing all of us poor, dumb, working-class shlubs from the evil machinations of the tobacco industry, they're going to be coming to your door, peeking in your windows and waiting for their chance to crash into your bedroom and yank that post-coital cigarette right out of your trembling hands.

So far, this is a battle being fought largely with statistics -- statistics that blow their own smoke. Smoke-Free Denver pushes stats that claim restaurant workers exposed to secondhand smoke are 34 percent more likely to die of lung cancer and that working a shift in a smoky bar is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes. When I mention a study done recently by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that sent customers into 173 Knoxville, Tennessee, restaurants wearing creepy air-sampling pumps that registered levels of smoke in the air far below any reasonable risk level, Doyle responds, "And you know who funds the Oak Ridge lab, right?" as if I'm supposed to assume that those statistics -- because they ran counter to his beliefs -- were fatally corrupted by secret back-room deals and the mischievous meddling of big tobacco.

Are tobacco companies above this sort of thing? Of course not. They've been lying to the public for years, and it's common knowledge that they pump hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly into doomed fights against community smoking bans all across the country. But when Smoke-Free Denver's own research and polling is being sponsored by the Denver Tobacco Intervention and Prevention Project -- a program funded by the state Tobacco Education and Prevention Partnership and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment -- maybe Doyle should be careful when accusing others of undue bias.

 

"I think it's what you use," Doyle replies when I ask what standards his group uses in choosing data. "You choose information you think people will find valuable."

Because that's how the statistics game is played these days, folks. You fund studies that will give you the response you want; you hype your victories and downplay your defeats. In the case of Smoke-Free Denver, you quote from environmental- and economic-impact studies in which smoking bans in a few communities have shown improvements in restaurant business -- while ignoring or slandering the results of research that would damage your position. And if people think the other side is coming to this fight with a different set of rules, they're sadly mistaken.

"There's studies that say thirty minutes' exposure to secondhand smoke has the same effect as smoking a pack a day," says Meersman. "They say the only level of secondhand smoke that's acceptable is zero. That's ridiculous." The anti-ban forces point to communities in Massachusetts, Iowa and Maine where smoking prohibitions were devastating to the local restaurant economy. In Tempe, Arizona, tax receipts showed bar revenue down 20 to 30 percent in the months following a ban similar to that being proposed for Denver. Another study calls a ban passed in August 2001 in Ottawa an "unmitigated disaster."

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit to being a degenerate smoker. Have been for years, will be for the foreseeable future, and I'm no idiot and I'm nobody's victim. The tobacco companies didn't trick me into lighting up my first smoke any more than the Colorado Beef Council tricked me into having a nice, rare tenderloin last night. Was there a chance of me picking up a touch of E. coli from that undercooked meat? Yup. Just like there's an outside chance that I might end up with my medulla pulped by spongiform bacteria from eating sweetbreads and calves'-brain tacos. Butter, liquor, foie gras and artisan cheese; cigarettes and too much wine; bloody-rare meat and bloody good times -- I know all of this stuff is probably bad for me, but I do it because I enjoy it, I do it in moderation, and no one but my wife and sometimes my mother has a right to say one word to me about it.

The freedom to make choices, both good ones and bad ones, is what this whole smoking fight is about. Across the country, uptight, fanatical busybodies are trying to tell us how to live our lives. Eating meat? Bad for you. Meat is filled with poisons and fat and consumed only by us heartless, unfeeling swine whose complicity in the murders of all those cows and pigs and chickens and whatnot will undoubtedly land us all in hell. Over-easy eggs? Potentially actionable should I come down with salmonella, hives or the Filipino brain worm. And having a smoke in a restaurant? You must be kidding me.

Rules like this are conceived by sanctimonious nitpickers who would never dare come down off their soapboxes and actually take a seat in one of the places where legislation like this is really going to hit home. The high-end, multimillion-dollar properties in LoDo, the swank eateries uptown, the chains -- most of them will be able to roll with the punch and come out unscathed. But there are dozens of little places like the 20th Street Cafe, Rodney's, Tom's Diner, the Denver Diner, the Skylark and any number of neighborhood saloons that are kept in business by regular folks stopping in for a shot and a beer, a steak dinner, a cuppa joe...and a couple of smokes. When I ask Meersman what he thinks will happen to these sorts of places, where smokers can constitute as much as 80 percent of the clientele, he says, very simply: "They'll close."

Denver's health department is currently collecting data on the possible economic impact of a smoking ban, but I think I can save the city both time and money. In essence, a ban on smoking would be tantamount to the city telling a certain percentage of tax-paying, law-abiding citizens -- roughly 21 percent of the population as a whole, and a significantly higher number of regular bar and restaurant patrons -- that they are no longer welcome to spend their money in the establishments that depend on them to turn a profit. The math's pretty simple. Oh, but wait: They can still spend their money on whiskey. No one has any problem with people drinking themselves to death at any of Denver's myriad taverns -- just as long as they don't light up a smoke while doing it.

 

As a matter of fact, the Smoke-Free Denver Web site lists secondhand smoke as the third-leading cause of preventable death in this country, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Center for Injury Prevention's 2000 statistics, you know what the number-one killer in America was? Car accidents. Since they take out the single largest chunk of the population between the ages of one and 45, wouldn't the logical solution be to ban cars? You'd save a whole lot more people that way, there'd be no more arguments about all you people with your gas-guzzling SUVs sending money to those oil-rich terrorist states, and just think how healthy the air would be without all that nasty carbon monoxide...

There are legitimate public-health concerns regarding the dangers of secondhand smoke, although I really doubt my smoking was adversely affecting the health of the twitching crank-banger sitting across from me at the Denver Diner absently picking at the scabs on his legs, or the bungled divorcées at Rodney's stinking of whiskey sweat at three in the afternoon. I'm a fairly considerate guy, and I can understand (and even appreciate) the non-smoking policies in effect in most of the high-end dining rooms throughout the city. If I'm sitting somewhere having a nice bit of seared ahi, poking my way through an artfully prepared shiitake duxelle or tearing into a hundred-dollar tasting menu at a place where the silver sparkles and the palate sings, then I'm fine with waiting to light up until the bill is paid and I'm out the door. Frankly, I'm more offended by some of the perfumes you luxe little show poodles slather yourselves in before a night on the town, but am I going to go and cry to city council about it? No. Am I going to circulate a petition among my fellow chefs to try to make it illegal for anyone to have a cocktail before dinner because the harsh sting of high-proof alcohol deadens the tastebuds far more effectively than cigarette smoke does? Again, no. Live and let live, as far as I'm concerned.

But that's not enough for the smoke-banners. "It's clear that there is no safe level of exposure" when it comes to secondhand smoke, Doyle says. "That's just what the health and the science tells us."

As things stand in Denver right now, though, the marketplace has reached its own level. There are non-smoking joints in town for those who absolutely cannot stand the thought of sharing their personal space with a guy like me, and there are bars and restaurants where smokers are welcome. Looking at it rationally, the non-smoking forces are already winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the general population. Thirty years ago, there was no such thing as a non-smoking restaurant. Today, as more people kick the habit and the market demands more smoke-free establishments, more are appearing. And this is fine by me. If some owner out there thinks he's better able to make a nickel by going smoke-free, then more power to him.

And if you think that those poor, allegedly victimized employees working the floor or behind the bars don't know which place is which, you're wrong. They know better than you, me or Smoke-Free Denver exactly which bars are smoky and which aren't, which restaurants have smoking sections and how busy they get. Do they want a blanket ban in every bar and restaurant in the city? Not the ones I talk to. A lot of them (like a lot of restaurant people in general) were smokers to start with and don't like anyone telling them what they can and can't do in their off hours, and most are terrified at the thought of a smoking ban, because they know that anything that affects the bottom line -- the number of butts in seats, not mouths, on any given night -- affects their ability to pay the rent.

Back at Adde Brewster, they discovered something in their stumble over to the dark side: They found a compromise that should satisfy both sides. Smoking is now allowed only at the bar, and two monster smoke-eaters have been installed that so vigorously scrub all those little air molecules clean that I can't even smell my own cigarette when I'm sitting there with it in my hand. Walking from the front door to the seating area, you have to pass through the bar -- all of three steps -- and you'd never know anyone had ever lit up on the premises unless you saw a cigarette. In the dining room, the air is as clean as anyone could possibly hope for.

 

But is this going to be enough for the anti-smoking activists? No, it is not. Having smoking allowed only in a separate room, vacuum-sealed, walled off by inch-thick mirrored Lexan and staffed by waitresses wearing head-to-toe haz-mat suits and pure oxygen re-breathers wouldn't be enough, because there is no compromise with these sorts of people. No middle ground. They know right from wrong with the single-minded convictions of the true zealot and will not stop until all your cabinets have child locks, all your meat is made of tofu and all your freedom to make dumb choices has been plundered in the interest of the greater good.

And that's their right. With the millions of things wrong in this world, if they want to turn their efforts toward making sure that you and I can never again enjoy a cigarette with our coffee or a smoke at the bar, that's fine. Am I annoyed with these people because they're trying to make me healthier and the world a safer place? No. I'm annoyed with them because they insist that theirs is the only way and that a socialist agenda of invasive laws and regulations is the only means of achieving it. I'm annoyed by the junk science and the junk statistics being tossed around in these fights, and I'm annoyed by the lying. I'm annoyed by the fact that all the name-calling and bickering (my own included) does nothing but muddy what should be a simple issue of personal choice.

Is smoking bad for you? Sure it is. And it'll probably kill you. But the world is a dangerous, vile and unsanitary place just chock-full of things that are bad for you. Is smoking wrong? No. Try to tell me different and you're in for a fight. Should the state step in and try to interfere in the affairs of honest, hardworking businesspeople already struggling in a crummy economy, in an industry tangled with rules and regulations, where the margin between a good night and a bad one -- between being able to make payroll and not -- can be as thin as a dozen dinners? Hell, no. Because handing over to anyone the power to legislate morality is not just a slippery slope; it's a frozen fucking water slide, and all the bad guys are wearing ice skates.

"What you really have to ask yourself," Doyle says, "is do you believe the science?" You know what? I don't. I no longer believe anyone's science, because all the conveniently bite-sized statistics and sound bites drawn out of that science are too easily corrupted. For now, I'll believe in freedom of choice, freedom from regulation and the freedom of the market to find its own level.

But that's just my opinion. Got one of your own? A second public forum on the potential smoking ban is set for 6 to 9 p.m. on December 5 at St. Dominic Church, 3005 West 29th Avenue. Or, of course, you can always e-mail your rants, screeds, letters of support or death threats directly to me here at Bite Me World Headquarters, care of jason.sheehan@westword.com.


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