A smokeasy (also spelled smoke-easy or smokeeasy) is a business, especially a bar or drinking venue, which allows smoking despite a smoking ban enacted as a criminal law or an occupational safety and health regulation. The term is also used to describe locations and events promoted by tobacco companies to avoid or evade bans on smoking. The word was added to the New Oxford American Dictionary in 2005, although it was used as early as 1978. It is a portmanteau of smoking and speakeasy.
Smoking bans have been pejoratively described as a type of sumptuary law, a law that attempts to regulate habits of consumption, like the prohibition of alcohol and drug prohibition. Such prohibitions tend to trigger underground economies. For, when a sector of the population is prohibited by law from consuming a certain good, or consuming a certain good in a certain way, inevitably, some will flout that prohibition and provide the good or the means of consuming the good in a black-market fashion. Thus, just as prohibition in the United States led to the speakeasy (an establishment in which alcohol was sold in contravention of the law), so too have smoking bans led to the smokeasy.
Some smokeasy operators simply operate openly, calculating that the fines they will pay are merely a cost of doing business. Others employ stealth tactics; for example, in Philadelphia, where it is illegal to have an ashtray in the workplace, smokeasy bartenders sometimes will use cups filled with some water to serve as ashtrays. A visit from the city inspector then merely requires getting customers to extinguish their smoking materials and disposing of the cigarette butts.
Because smokeasies are breaking the law, usually locations are spread by word-of-mouth; they even may involve the swearing of secrecy. Although some smokeasies are underground establishments, others are ordinary bars that covertly permit smoking in the evening.
Sometimes businesses choose to openly defy existing smoking bans due to loss of business. There are cases in which establishments risk closure and heavy fines to draw attention to the issue, which includes being documented in the press as a smokeasy.
Tobacco companies and smokeasies
Tobacco companies have used a variety of tactics to encourage the sale and consumption of cigarettes in the presence of smoking bans, and the term smokeasy has commonly been used to describe events and establishments of this kind. Imperial Tobacco hires public venues to promote its Peter Stuyvesant brand. In Chicago, RJ Reynolds established an "upscale smoking lounge" serving alcohol and food, but classified as a retail tobacco store.
New York City
Within one month of the passage of New York City's smoking ban in 2003, smokeasies were quickly predicted. Shortly thereafter, some bartenders began to hear word of smokeasies and theorized that some former regulars who were smokers had switched to the smokeasies. Today, both covert and overt smokeasies exist throughout New York City and the whole state of New York. As a result, New York City unexpectedly had to begin a campaign of enforcing its smoking ban: in 2005–2006, the city issued 601 citations to smokeasies, including 232 in Queens, 158 in Manhattan, 126 in Brooklyn, 73 in The Bronx and 12 in Staten Island.
In Hawaii, a large number of establishments openly defy the statewide smoking ban, one of America's strictest, which went into effect on November 16, 2006. Several bars have disclosed their defiance in local newspapers and have invited television stations to film the unlawful smoking. As of 2010, no bar has been fined, and open defiance continues. Up to half of the bar owners in Honolulu have signed statements claiming losses averaging 30% and expressed open concern at the anti-smoking lobby claim that it would not affect business, a claim that was later reinforced by the Hawaii Department of Health's air quality study and Honolulu Liquor Commission sales data. As a result, proposals currently are before the Hawaii Legislature to exempt bars from the statewide smoking ban by creating a new type of liquor license which permits the licensee to allow smoking.
With the passing of a 2008 smoking ban, many Dutch cafes had become smokeasies despite facing fines up to 18,500 Euros. The Dutch pub owners viewed their defiance as necessary to stay in business, with the group Save the Small Cafe Owners stating the ban has cost them 1/3 of their business. The same groups also organized a 1500-5000 owner strong public protest of the ban in November, 2008.
After two years of continued opposition by bar and cafe owners, in the fall of 2010 the Dutch government repealed the ban for smaller bars and cafes which had complained loudly about loss of business.
Smokeasies have become a noted phenomenon in most jurisdictions with a ban on smoking in bars and/or restaurants, including Alberta, Arizona, Boston, California, Colorado, Columbia, Missouri, Delaware, Dublin, Germany, Illinois, Manitoba, Minnesota, Ohio, Philadelphia, Qatar, Seattle, South Carolina, Toronto, the United Kingdom, Thailand, Utah, and Washington, D.C.
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