3 min

It’s just the nicotine talking

Sidewalk smokers are cranky

GOT A LIGHT? On the sidewalk outside Bar 501 Matthew Hayes lights Amanda's cigarette as Wayne Nurse looks on. Credit: Joshua Meles

The haze that once filled Church St’s bars and restaurants has moved to the sidewalks and patios.

Opinions about Toronto’s smoking by-law, which came into effect Jun 1, are as diverse as the people who crowd the area’s bars and clubs every weekend. But one thing is for certain – it has people talking.

For Alex Gvakharia, owner of Enigma Lounge, it’s talk of change. He’s been a smoker for 17 years and he’s ready to quit.

“Now with everybody going nonsmoking it’s so irritating that you cannot sit inside a restaurant, you have to go outside,” Gvakharia says. “So I said to myself, ‘I will try to quit to save myself the torture.'”

While a handy nicotine patch will help keep Gvakharia’s paws off the pack, others will be hanging onto their cigarettes for dear life and marching directly to the nearest patio, sidewalk or designated smoking room (DSR).

The first full night with the by-law in effect was quiet in the Church St Village. No smokers puffed in protest in the bars. If the by-law enforcement officers were scouring the area, they were inconspicuous about it. At Bad Boy’s Night Out at Woody’s, the patrons behaved like school-children – the only misbehaviour was a shouting match outside between a bouncer and a wandering flower salesman. The angry smokers highlighted in much of the mainstream media were nowhere in sight.

That doesn’t mean people are happy, even new nonsmokers like Gvakharia.

“Come wintertime I think the crowds will be majorly pissed,” says Gvakharia.

At Bar 501, smokers appreciated the warm night.

“I’m glad it’s not winter,” says customer Matthew Hayes, because he’ll “freeze his ass off in the winter.”

“I get kind of bitchy without my cigarettes, but I’m always a bitch though,” explains drag queen Amanda, of the group The Freaks. “It won’t be bad for the summer but once winter comes I’ll have to put on my snowsuit.”

“I think we should move over to smoking clubs where the idea is that if you’re a nonsmoker it’s up to you to enter the club,” says Wayne Nurse. It’s an idea at least one straight bar has adopted.

“So start a gay one,” suggests Amanda.

The smokers at 501 snuff out their butts in flower pots by the door while some smokers at Lüb blow out their frustration with potty mouths.

“I fucking hate it,” says Jim, who refused to give his last name. “A lot of people who don’t usually smoke are social smokers when they drink…. I think it’s an infringement of our rights, not to be able to smoke in a public place.”

Some business owners, promoters and staff have different feelings than their clientele.

“Forcing other people to be in a smoke-filled place, breathing your second-hand smoke is just not right,” says Steve Ireson, a veteran party promoter. He observed that bartenders get the worst of it, working in the smoke for six to 12 hours. “It’s not like we don’t have enough pollution in the city already.”

Ireson supports the new rules and is working with his venues to create an in and out system while they work out a long-term strategy. For example, owners of the Mod Club may create a DSR upstairs, but there are no fixed plans.

At Fly nightclub, owners are trying to welcome smokers and nonsmokers alike by creating a DSR, making it one of the few establishments in the village to do so.

“It sort of keeps in line with the way we’ve tried to position the club since we bought it, trying to be accessible and inclusive,” says coowner Ian Malcolm. “A lot of people choose to smoke and it’s only right that they have space within limits to do so.”

Malcolm expects the DSR will be completed by the end of the month and smokers currently use the patio of the connected restaurant.

“So far we’ve received a pretty good response from smokers and nonsmokers,” Malcolm says. “In the design of the décor of the space we’re trying to make it comfortable and not just a stark room off to the side.”

The new O’Grady’s (form-erly Wilde Oscars) has been nonsmoking since it opened May 30. The only tendrils of smoke inside this restaurant come from the kitchen, which has been kept busy by the crowds of sun-worshippers packing the patio.

O’Grady’s patio even has a non-smoking section, an idea tacitly recommended by the city.

“We try to do it in a really even manner to the point that we’ll make smokers and non-smokers happy,” says Manny Modopoulos, a manager of O’Grady’s. “We’re going to see in the winter how it affects us, but right now, it hasn’t really affected us in a big way at all.”

Though it will take time to assess the impact of the by-law on queer nightlife and businesses, owners might find solace in the several Canadian and American studies that show restaurant and bar revenues don’t drop after a smoking ban is imposed.

Says Gvakharia: “Check in with me in a couple months and see how I’m doing.”