As the hours counted down toward the official start of Columbia’s smoking ban, many customers at local bars Monday night and early Tuesday morning saw the last chance to light up in public places as a special occasion.
“People are chain-smoking out of deliverance,” said Sal Pacino, owner of the Eastside Tavern on Broadway and a longtime smoker. Pacino had been hiding ashtrays in recent days to gradually cut his customers’ smoking. He said he will abide by the law, even if his customers and employees don’t like it.
“It’s the law. What am I going to do? I have a bar and liquor license,” Pacino said. “I have no choice but to enforce it.”
Cody Burnett was sitting with friends at the Blue Fugue on Ninth Street, which was filled with smoke and “I don’t care” attitudes as customers continued smoking past midnight. Burnett said that if someone were to ask him to stop smoking, he’d first finish the cigarette he was working on.
“Unless there is a cop present, and I know it’s for real, I’ll keep smoking at bars,” Burnett said.
Matt Range, a bartender at Shakespeare’s Pizza, said he won’t enforce the ordinance.
“We are getting rid of our ashtrays, but that’s about it,” he said. “I won’t tell people to stop smoking if I see it, unless someone complains.”
At Teller’s, owner Deb Rust said she’ll do what she can to enforce the smoking law, but she wishes the city had provided more guidance. Tyson Franklin, a 25-year-old bartender at Teller’s, said he’s not looking forward to confronting customers.
“It’s like a kill-buzz having to tell people to stop,” he said. “Because it’s a bar, it’s what people do.”
Even Franklin, who normally doesn’t smoke behind the bar, was puffing away while serving customers Monday night. “I’m smoking inside right now, when normally I’d go outside out of common courtesy. But this is a special occasion.”
Jessica Ames, a bartender at Trattoria Strada Nova, was enjoying what she said would be her last night of smoking.
“I’m smoking like there’s no tomorrow,” Ames said. “I decided to quit for the new year but figured I would just wait eight more days and enjoy the last week of the Columbia smoking scene.”
With just half an hour to go before midnight at Tonic, people were smoking cigarettes as if 12:01 a.m. were the beginning of the apocalypse. Customers stood three deep at the bar, and the smell of cigarettes was heavy in the air. Tendrils of smoke curled from quickly filling ashtrays scattered on the tables.
Tonic lined its bar with fishbowls full of free generic cigarettes to fuel the celebration. As midnight approached, some customers rushed to grab fistfuls of the free smokes and hoard them in plastic cups. The crowd delighted in a chorus of “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette,” a 1940s country-Western song.
Tonic doorman Sam Wige surveyed the crowd through the haze from a stairway toward the back of the bar. It was technically the staff’s job to enforce the ban after midnight, but Wige was unsure how that would go over.
“We’re supposed to ask them not to smoke, but we’re not going to cause a big ruckus over it,” he said. “It’s a $200 citation if they get caught. We’re just trying to help them out.”
Nothing changed in Tonic as 12:01 a.m. came and went. Couples still clung to each other with one hand and to lit cigarettes with the other. A few smokers looked around to ensure nobody else was obeying the ban start time. Some began chain-smoking, lighting one cigarette off another, then crushing the butt into the concrete floor.
“It is all about whistle-blowers,” Ian Krohmer said as he reached across two people and plucked a smoke from a fishbowl. “If nobody catches you, who cares?”
He lit a match, inhaled and grinned as he exhaled the words, “I’m going to smoke anyway.”
Not everyone at Tonic displayed the rebel streak. Jay Langord, a student at Columbia College, said he’s looking forward to a smoke-free bar experience.
“(Before the ban) I just had to accept the fact that I have to stand all the smoke that comes into my eyes and burns my nose whenever I came to bars,” he said. “Now I can imagine the day I can go home without smelling like cigarettes.”
At Quinton’s Bar and Deli on Ninth Street, smokers didn’t bat an eye at 12:01 a.m.
“The smoking ban is dead to me,” said 20-year-old Heather Marengo, of Kansas City, as she lit up at 12:06 a.m.
On the south side of town, at the Grand Cru Restaurant, about a dozen friends of owner George Liggett gathered for a final smoking extravaganza that included a $200 dinner featuring 28-ounce steaks, South African rock lobster, rare wine and two Davidoff white-label cigars per person.
Larry Scroggins, an emergency-room physician at Boone Hospital Center, said he has never smoked cigarettes but has indulged in cigars for the past 10 years. Cigars, he said, are about the occasion and enjoying the company of friends.
Scroggins doesn’t think Monday night was really the last night for smoking in Columbia bars. He said the law is unenforceable.
“The Health Department doesn’t have enough inspectors, and the police have already said they won’t get involved,” Scroggins said.
Back at Quinton’s, 20-year-old waitress Carissa Loethan said she’ll act as her own enforcer.
“I can’t freaking wait! My eyes are burning. I love (the ban),” Loethan said as she ran drinks to customers late Monday night. “If I see people smoking tomorrow night I’ll punch ’em in the face.”
Missourian reporters Jessica Becker, Liana Cecil, Anna Pattison, Molly Frankel, Dan Michel and Anne Salazar contributed to this report.