Postcard from... San Francisco

 

“Excuse me, do you have a light?” To a European, such a question asked in crowded bar, does not compute.

It is now several years since a smoking ban was imposed in the UK, and lighting up in pub, bar or club will be met with a possible fine and a certain booting out from wherever you happen to be drinking. But not necessarily here in San Francisco.

California has some of the toughest anti-smoking laws in the world. Light up in a motel and the owner is well within his or her right to charge you hundreds of dollars in "cleaning fees". But a libertarian streak runs through this state and in this most liberal of American cities it is still possible to find a bar or two where smoking is not only allowed but also encouraged. In the US, the law was never about protecting the health of smokers, but was designed to protect the wellbeing of those working behind the bar – if the bar staff are aware of the risks, and agree to ignore the warning, customers are allowed to happily smoke themselves into an early grave.

Of course, in practice this means that only small, privately-owned bars are exempt, but there are several in this city. My bar, the other night, was packed with smokers and one perfectly content barmaid.

A good thing? Well, you always have a choice to drink somewhere else, but it is true that smoky bars do offer an atmosphere that has undoubtedly been lost since the universal ban was imposed in the UK. The one thing that wasn't missed, however, was the smell of my clothes the next morning.

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