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New York finally breathes easy

New York, March 31 (Reuters): New Yorkers breathed a little more easily on Sunday, although smokers grumbled, as the city’s stiff new anti-smoking law took effect.

Smokers huddled in the unusual early spring cold to puff on cigarettes outside bars and restaurants, where smoking was no longer allowed.

“It’s just another thing you can’t do any more,” said Thaddeus Kromelis, as he stood outside a Times Square watering hole to have a cigarette.

Designed to protect workers in the city’s 13,000 bars and restaurants that have allowed smoking, the ban was pushed by mayor Michael Bloomberg, an ex-smoker.

It outlaws smoking in bars and restaurants, with very few exceptions, and the fines are stiff.

The penalty for a first-time offence begins at $200, and businesses caught repeatedly allowing smoking run the risk of being shut down.

Some bar and restaurant owners fret that the ban will scare off customers; others hope more non-smokers will visit now that the air is clearer.

The ban was not being put to its true test on Sunday. Bar crowds were sparse and, although a few businesses could be seen letting customers puff away, inspectors with the city’s department of health were not issuing summonses or levying fines until May 1.

Wait and see, said one bartender on Manhattan’s West Side who didn’t want his name used.

“Wait until the first Friday night,” he said.

“The customers who can’t smoke, they could be worse than the drunks.”

Smoking has been banned in New York City restaurants with more than 35 seats since 1995. Smaller restaurants, separate bar areas and stand-alone bars have been exempt, but those exemptions expired when the new law took effect on Sunday.

Similarly stiff anti-smoking laws are in effect in California, while hundreds of smaller cities and towns around the United States have banned smoking in restaurants.

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