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|Bloomberg's tobacco stormtroopers raid Vanity Fair office for 'ashtray violation'
The mere presence in his elegant office of a clean ashtray, unsullied by cigarette stubs, has ignited a fiery row between the editor of Vanity Fair and New York's rabidly anti-smoking mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
Graydon Carter, one of America's most celebrated arbiters of national taste, has accused Mr Bloomberg of harassment after the mayor's tobacco stormtroopers - inspectors from the city's health department - raided the magazine's Times Square building no fewer than three times, aiming to catch Mr Carter smoking illegally.
During the most recent raid, both Mr Carter and his cigarettes were out of the office, but the inspectors noticed the unused ashtray. They issued an immediate ticket and fined Conde Nast - the parent company of Vanity Fair - $200 (£120). Mr Carter has consistently ridiculed Mr Bloomberg's laws, which ban smoking in all bars, restaurants and public gathering places, in addition to all offices or anywhere people are employed.
Ashtrays are also outlawed lest they encourage people to smoke. Of 2,300 summonses issued since the Bloomberg Law came into force in May, more than 200 have been for "ashtray violations".
Mr Carter said: "This is harassment on the part of Mike Bloomberg, pure and simple. They have raided my office three times. They are allowed to come into your office looking for an ashtray. The city actually spent money training them on how to identify one. I wasn't even in my office during the last raid. The ashtray was just sitting there, lonely and unused. The time before that, I waved them away and told them to piss off."
In another case a store owner was fined for possessing an ashtray, used solely for shoppers to stub out their cigarettes as they entered.
A spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg, whose low popularity ratings prompted the New York Post to devote its front page on Thanksgiving Day to a composite photograph depicting him as a turkey, was unrepentant: "If the health department is enforcing the law, we stand by its implementation."
The City Hall website claims that in 2002, about 1,000 New Yorkers died because of exposure to second-hand smoke.
"Not having ashtrays and putting up no-smoking signs are two of the strongest ways to discourage smoking and to let people know what the law is," said Sandra Mullin, of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The health inspectors can enter any premises covered by the smoking laws without a warrant in the same way that food inspectors may make unheralded visits to restaurant kitchens.
Emily Whitfield, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "It does seem rather remarkable. With an empty ashtray we are saying that where there is no smoke, there is still fire. But because they are safety inspectors rather than police, no warrant is required." She admitted that the crackdown makes civil libertarians uncomfortable, but said the possibility of an ashtray "bust" was clearly stated in the law. "You can't say you weren't warned."
It was left to Mr Carter to frame the obvious question - and supply the answer. "Has New York gone bonkers?" he asked. "Yes!"