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Smokefree nights of summer

Tue 8 Feb 2005 In: Community

There were cheers and jeers nationwide when the smoking ban in restaurants and bars came into effect just on two months ago, along with concerns from some in the hospitality industry that business would be snuffed out along with the last remaining butts. But what about the gay venues? We're always told that gays and lesbians smoke and drink much more than the general population. Although studies linking smoking with sexuality have been limited in New Zealand, overseas there is definitely concern, particularly regarding youth. The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association in America presented statistics at its annual conference in October last year showing that the percentage of young gays and lesbians who smoke was nearly double the national average among teens. If this is true of the gay and lesbian population in general, surely the gay venues must have been shaking in their shoes as the dreaded December 10 deadline approached? Well, based on the venues we spoke to, nothing could have been further from the truth. Some, like sex-on-site venue Menfriends in Christchurch, had started their ban earlier. “In October 2003 Menfriends became the first NZ gay venue to go smokefree by choice,” says venue manager Stuart Yateman. “We may have possibly lost one or two clients over it but none that have actually said so.The venue itself is a far nicer place to be, the crew have all saved a fortune by not being able to puff away all day andnon-smokers, who predominate, appreciate it.” Menfriends, like many venues, prepared for the inevitable by providing a separate smoking area that would comply with the law, whilst avoiding banishing smokers to the footpath. "Our premises allowed for us to construct a smoking zone that is not part of the workplace or the venue itself. We knocked a hole in our ground floor back wall and put a door in it. Beyond that, outside, we created a pleasant heated and sheltered space.This has become as popular with non-smokers as it was with smokers fromwhen it first appeared - we are looking to extend it." This increase in social interaction is not an isolated case. Patrons at Flesh nightclub in Auckland have made the footpath into a hip place to be, just like the kitchen at parties. Non-smokers come outside to be with their smoking friends, and without the intrusive thud of dancefloor drum n bass, people are actually having conversations. “It has improved social cohesion in some ways,” says Wellington drag artiste Pollyfilla, who performs at venues all over the country. She says she's noticed no effect on patronage. "People will gather outside to smoke and interact." Leesa West, owner of Kamo Restaurant on K Road in Auckland, has also noticed the rise of the Footpath Club. She has concerns about it, though. "With the public coming outside to smoke, you're getting a lot of people clustering outside on the footpath," she says. "I'm concerned it's going to end up encouraging fights and disorderly behaviour, but other than that I think it's working out quite well." West estimates, if anything, client numbers have actually increased at Kamo since the ban. “We have actually got approval from the council for a little bit of seating outside, up to two metres, so the ones who want to smoke are sitting outside. It's not very big area, though, only four tables. Otherwise people just stand in the doorway.” With all that smoking going on outside, there have been noticeable changes indoors – particularly with regards to smells. “People are starting to notice the smell of the bars,” says Pollyfilla. “Sometimes it's a sweaty, beery smell.” Bruce Williamson, owner of Cruz bar in Christchurch, says that for the first week or two following the ban – which Cruz instigated two weeks early – smelly patrons were definitely caught out, just like the urban legend of the man who pisses in the swimming pool, only to find there's a chemical in the water which turns urine bright red. “The personal hygiene of many customers has taken a big turn for the better, as they became aware that others could now smell them,” he says. “That was a big, unexpected bonus.” HAIR CALMS THE NERVES Pollyfilla says it's made her job less hazardous, although not in a way you might expect. “You don't have people throwing cigarette butts everywhere, which is great,” she says. “It only takes one cigarette butt to get stuck on your heel and it throws you off balance.” Drag queens looking for a nicotine fix to chill out have been forced to improvise. "It's definitely changed the whole drag scene. Before a performance, the dressing room was usually full of drag queens having a last-minute smoke to calm their nerves. They can't do that now, so people seem to be playing with their hair a lot more." Performing in a haze of smoke every night was quite full-on, says Pollyfilla. As a non-smoker, she's much happier now, as are venue staff and owners. Cruz's Williamson, also a non-smoker, says he even had brief withdrawal symptoms following the ban. "That makes it hard to argue that passive smokers were not affected by their environment while working in a bar." Williamson is pleased overall; with no more cigarettes, there's no longer any damage to couches or bar tops. The only loser has been the cleaner, who's had less hours of work since the ban. Otherwise, he says, the whole furore has turned out to be a big yawn. "Any debates about the likely effects of the ban had been conducted many months ago." Cruise club Lateshift was the first Auckland gay venue to go smokefree, last July. Owner Jay Bennie says there were some complaints at first. "A few heavy smokers complained in the leadup to our smoking ban but seemed to very quickly adjust to the reality of it when it started," he says. "Most smokers are cool about it and non-smokers have been telling us how wonderful it is to have clean air. Staff, a mix of smokers and non-smokers, are thrilled to be going home after work not smelling of stale smoke." But Lateshift staff have noted that the use of chewing gum has risen markedly and have had to institute almost daily "wad removal" sweeps through the venue. Some thought the smoking ban was nanny-state meddling by the Labour government, and would turn out to be a political wrist-slitter. In fact, it's turned out to be something of a non-starter, perhaps because the long lead time before the bill's passing allowed venues to prepare and cater for smokers with specific outdoor areas. THE INTERNATIONAL SMOKEFREE TREND Any fears that may have been harboured about losing business, have not been borne out in the nearly two months since the ban was enforced, and for those who think jetsetting overseas to enjoy smoking in bars may be the way to go, other countries are following in New Zealand's footsteps. Ireland, India and Norway had already banned smoking in bars by June last year. Britain, Scotland, Italy, Hong Kong and Russia all announced plans late last year to follow suit within the next year or two. For some, the smoky haze is an essential part of a big night out, and it's going to take time to re-adjust. They can only live in hope that British comedian Eddie Izzard's fear won't become a reality – first a ban on smoking, followed by no drinking and no talking. He wondered whether, in the future, the local library would replace the pub as the place to go for a wild night out. Only time will tell.     Chris Banks - 8th February 2005

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Tuesday, 8th February 2005 - 12:00pm

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