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The Last Gasp: Scumming It in the Few Bars in America Where You Can Still (Secretly) Smoke

‘If and when you stumble upon a bar you can smoke in, you know you're among true degenerates. I mean that positively.’

We’re such stoners that 4/20 isn’t just a day, it’s an entire week. And it’s not just weed we love, it’s the act of smoking and everything even loosely related to breathing in toxic fumes — whether that’s chain-smoking cigarettes, vaping Juuls, suffocating a rack of ribs, or hell, even committing arson! Welcome to our exploration of all things smoke.

When Brendan, a 34-year-old in Chicago, wants to pull endless cigs under the roof of a dingy bar, he knows exactly where to go: Richard’s.

Somehow, despite Illinois state laws barring smoking indoors for more than a decade, Richard’s skates around the issue. Some incorrectly theorize that they’ve established the bar as a “smoking club,” and thus, found a loophole in the law. Others just say it’s a “cop bar,” so they’re allowed to do whatever they want.

When I ask a bartender at Richard’s, she flatly tells me, “We don’t allow smoking in here,” and that “it’s illegal to smoke anywhere indoors in the city.” Richard’s grouchy bartender has former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to thank, who in 1986 released a report titled “The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking,” which detailed the litany of health issues that can arise from secondhand smoke. To that end, here’s a fun video on the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke, if you’re not already familiar:

The same year, the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights became a national group, putting pressure on politicians to pass smoke-free workplace laws. And so, slowly but surely, public places like airlines and government buildings began to ban smoking. Next, starting in the early 2000s, several states followed California’s lead in passing state-wide legislation that bans people from smoking cigarettes in any enclosed workplaces — including bars and restaurants.

While there isn’t yet a federal ban on smoking indoors, 28 states now have total bans on smoking in all-indoor workplaces. Another 12 states have bans, but with exemptions carved out for things like number of employees, whether it’s a private club or the percentage of profit the business makes from food. Illinois, however, is among the states that’s banned smoking indoors outright. Yet the patrons still smoke away. And if you don’t believe me, take it from yelpers Rachel, Maddie and Christopher:

Smoking at Richard’s is a pretty well-known secret in Chicago, perhaps making it an apt defense against the burgeoning population of yuppie apartment complexes filled with bougie young business bros too scared to take public transportation downtown. Basically, Richard’s, a stone’s throw from Chicago’s business district, stands as a dirtbag’s port in a gentrification storm. “There’s fewer and fewer true dive bars in Chicago these days, and Richard’s is the truest dive bar experience around,” says Brendan, a frequent patron. “It’s scummy, smoky, the patrons look like they haven’t left in 20 years, and if you’re not a regular, you’ll feel a little out of place, which is what you’re supposed to feel. It’s perfect for the last stop — when you get to the point in the night when everything tastes the same anyway, spend $3 on a shitty beer and smoke away.”

For Brendan, the thrill of smoking in Richard’s isn’t about doing something technically illegal, “[it’s] more like when you go to a fancy dinner and it feels extra special because you only do it a few times a year. For some reason, you’re still allowed to smoke in there — they even sell cigarettes! But you get excited, and really go all out. Like, you smoke way more. Way, way more. When you can smoke in the bar, it’s such a novelty that you basically chain smoke until you feel like shit.”

Brendan was in college at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana on January 1, 2008, when the smoking ban was passed. “They banned smoking in bars at the stroke of midnight,” he recalls. “Even if the scent of smoke hung in the air from years of indoor smoking, [after the ban] it was a pretty stark contrast — coming home only kinda smelling like smoke than feeling like it had soaked into your bones.”

As a nonsmoker, I’ve never understood the appeal of smoking in bars, and going to places like Richard’s is a nightmare for me. My clothes stink. My throat and eyes burn. And my precious runner’s lungs go into overdrive trying to hack out the impurities. But for guys like Brendan, who’ve “paired smokes with beer since college,” it’s like “donuts and coffee, just a million times worse for you.”

“It’s some weird alchemy,” he tells me. “I’m a big shitty beer guy. Busch Light basically tastes exactly like the color it is, mild and relatively flavorless with a little bit of bitter tang. A Camel Light stands in such stark contrast. So you have a mildly bitter, cold fluid sitting on your tongue and washes down your throat, then there’s this intensely bitter smoke that just fills your entire fucking face.”

Even though Brendan makes a point of seeking out smoking bars in his world travels — “Outside of Japan, most places I’ve traveled in the U.S. and internationally have banned smoking in bars, but if and when you stumble upon a bar you can smoke in, you know you’re among true degenerates. I mean that positively” — he doesn’t miss being able to smoke in every bar. “If you want to smoke, you should do your best not to make other people suffer because of your (admittedly) pretty gross habit,” he says.

What happens, though, if you work in a bar where people smoke?

A 38-year-old woman named Meredith tends bar at a “small dive” in Connecticut, another state where smoking indoors is strictly outlawed. When she got the job, the bar’s owner directed her to allow smoking inside the bar “so long as it isn’t too busy,” she tells me, adding that the owner himself “always smokes inside.”

For the most part, patrons “don’t chain smoke or take advantage,” but when she works, she tends to smoke more herself. “I don’t smoke in my home,” she says. “So I tend to smoke more at [the bar], even more than other jobs because I don’t have to wait for a break to light up.” According to a study published in The British Medical Journal, Meredith’s increase in smoking isn’t an outlier. In what the study deems “socially cued” smoking, the study found that of the smokers who patronized bars and clubs that allowed smoking, “70 percent reported smoking more in these settings and 25 percent indicated they would be likely to quit if smoking were banned in social venues.”

Though Meredith doesn’t mind that her bar allows smoking, and says it wouldn’t be a deciding factor in taking another job, she does admit that there “are no good parts” about working in a bar that allows smoking. “People are usually happy when they find out they can smoke inside,” she says, “but I hate that I smoke more when I’m there, and it can turn off non-smokers.”

Since Meredith’s bar isn’t working within a loophole, employees are asked to hide all smoking paraphernalia when the cops come. “If the cops come, everything is put away,” she says. “But they’ve never said anything about the smell or smoke when they’ve been here. Otherwise, we keep ashtrays put away when they’re not in use and have fans that ventilate pretty well.”

When people try to “get away with smoking” during busy times, Meredith has to send them outside. “For the most part, they’re respectful when I remind them of the rules, but I’ve had people get mad about having to go out. One girl even called the owner when I asked her to go out, and he told her she had to listen to the bartender.” Plus, Meredith adds, “One of our best regulars doesn’t like smoke,” she says, “so most people know to go outside if he’s at the bar.”

Nicole Bournival is another bartender at a smoking bar: The Rimmon Club, a small spot in Manchester, New Hampshire. She doesn’t smoke herself, but the place is a smoking bar through and through. Bournival explains that smoking in bars is outlawed in New Hampshire, but The Rimmon Club was “grandfathered in” and allows smoking by claiming to be a private smoking club that’s not technically “open to the public.” “If you’re a club member or member’s visitor, you’re allowed to smoke. You just have to be signed in if you’re a guest, and to become a member, it’s $40 for the first two years and $30 every two years after,” Bournival explains. A self-proclaimed “sassy bartender,” Bournival says she “wouldn’t fit very well in the public bars, so I tend to stick to the private ones, where you can be a little rough around the edges.”

For Bournival, who says she hasn’t noticed any health issues with regards to secondhand smoke, the worst part is coming home smelling — especially after cleaners release the layers of cigarette toxins that deposit on various surfaces at the bar. “You go home smelling like an ashtray!” she tells me. “Otherwise, it doesn’t really get to me health-wise. It’s just annoying with stinking up my hair and clothes. But I don’t really notice it while I’m at work. It’s only when I get home that I tend to notice it.”

“Of course, there are people who complain, as people complain about everything these days,” she laughs, “but some people choose not to come in because of it, and that’s okay. Sometimes husbands or wives come in without their significant others because they don’t like the smell. But for the most part, it’s not too bad. We do have smoke eaters around the club in several different spots, so it does cut it down.”

Stephanie Litzinger has tended bar at an Eagles Club in Indiana for more than two years now. Though Indiana has “strong anti-smoking laws in effect,” per the American Lung Association, the state still allows smoking in private clubs, such as her Fraternal Order of Eagles Club. “It isn’t something I could do forever,” she says. “I’m 30, and I get coughs more often, for sure. I also swear my skin looks way more dry than it did when I started.” Litzinger says she smokes along with customers because she doesn’t want them to think she’s judging them. “You want your bartender to act like a built-in friend when you come in, especially when you stroll in solo,” she says. “So I end up smoking way more than I do at home. When I have a couple of days off in a row, I barely smoke, because I’m so over the smell and taste of cigarettes.”

As for how much people smoke in Litzinger’s bar, she says “most people have two packs on them — one of the packs already open by the time they’ve gotten there. They go through that one and put a good dent in the other one by the time they’re a few in. It’s easy for me to track as I throw away their empty packs and continuously dump their ashtray.” She adds that while regulars say they wouldn’t come back to the bar if they couldn’t smoke, “I hear more from other people, though, that they won’t come in because of the smoke. I think smoking bars drive away a lot of potential business.”

That said, Litzinger enjoys how smoking allows her to categorize different customers:

  • “Business people that have a little bit of a wild side will come in, steer clear for a few beers but inevitably end up bumming one from whomever they end up chatting with after all of the ‘Where ya from?’ questions.”
  • “You have the blue-collar, hard-working guy who comes in after work with an off-brand pack. He tips the same amount each time — two or three bucks. Sits at the same spot, not a gold mine but consistent.”
  • “You have the half-pack, pierced tatted kids. They smoke 100s, typically menthols, and have tons of half-smoked cigs in their pack. They dig change out of their pockets for the pool table, may throw a dollar or two in the jukebox and casually try to mooch for drinks.”
  • “Then you have the Virginia Slim Karens. They puff out of the side of their mouths, and their haircuts resemble a Pomeranian. They act superior but are very lonely inside.”
  • “Finally, there are the cigar smokers. They typically stink the most — and cleanup is harder — but they have money and love to show it.”

Aside from people watching, The Rimmon Club’s Bournival says there are other good things about working in a smoking bar — mainly that it’s different. “There aren’t many [smoking bars] located in the city, so people who enjoy smoking like and notice that when they come in, [so] it helps them to become members at our bar.”

“Still, if people ask me for a butt (seeing I don’t smoke), I tend to moon them,” she warns. “That’s the only butt I carry on me.”