A bottle of vodka may cost $500 at a New York nightclub, but bathroom attendants risk $1,000 fines every time they sell a cigarette.
Bathroom attendants in several posh drinking spots are selling individual cigarettes, or loosies, for a buck a piece. It's a misdemeanor under city and state law, but some wonder if the city is looking the other way when it comes to cracking down on loosie sales at upscale locales.
More than 5,000 people have been arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes and tobacco products in New York City since 2008, 247 so far this year, according to the NYPD. Russell Novack, an attorney with Legal Aid that often defends people who hawk loosies on the street, said he has never heard of a
bathroom attendant being charged for the crime.
“It’s an interesting enforcement question. Why is one tolerated and one is not?” he said.
At Financial District gastropub The Fulton, Metro discovered a bathroom attendant selling loosies next to gum, candy and deodorant. When Metro approached him, he said that he wasn’t “selling” the cigarettes, but expected a $1 tip if a client wanted to smoke one.
Novack said that sort of argument wouldn’t hold up in court.
“It’s a novel theory,” Novack said. “Would it fly in court, probably not. It’s a real crime.”
Novack said that people that sell loosies are traditionally charged with unlicensed vending under city law or the sale of untaxed tobacco, a state law.
One of his clients who sold loosies in midtown, Lonnie Warner, has been arrested dozens of times for the crime, even spending time at Rikers.
According to state law, first time untaxed tobacco offenders are hit with a $1,000 fine and repeat offenders are charged with a felony.
Software engineer Dan Fried, 26, of Sunset Park says that he’s seen many bathroom attendants peddling loosies at posh places in the Meatpacking District, Midtown and Murray Hill.
"They cater to people to whom high endness is important," said Fried. "[It's] a very particular kind of bar or club."
Leave the loosies alone
Andrew Rigie, of the New York State Restaurant Association, said that the sale of loosies in nightclubs was once commonplace.
“As long as there’s a demand for something, there may be an employee that will try to sell cigarettes,” said Rigie, who added that the NYSRA encourages restaurants to follow the law.
Analyst Sam Miller, 26, of Williamsburg says that expensive cigarette prices support bathroom attendants’ illegal business.
“With the price of cigarettes, not everyone’s going to pay 14 dollars,” Miller said. “Any of the big clubs in the meatpacking district sell them.”
She was surprised to find out that it was illegal to sell loosies.
“It should be legal,” she said. “Sometimes you just want one.”
Cigs sales hard to monitor
Andrew Rigie, of the New York State Restaurant Association, explained that it’s hard for owners to keep tabs on everything that goes on inside their businesses.
“It’s very difficult for owners to regulate the behavior of all their employees,” Rigie said. “They may not even know that the sale of cigarettes is occurring. “
Matt Shendel, President of Paige Management Group that runs The Fulton and The Ainsworth, said he had no idea what was going on in his bathrooms. "We employ independent contractors and know nothing about it,” Shendel said.
A spokeswoman for the city Health Department said she didn't know anything about loosie sales at nightclubs, but If inspectors observe the sale of loose cigarettes and/or smoking, the restaurant will be cited by the Health Department.
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