Speaker by Various Artists

All I need is the air that I breathe ...

by Gemma Gracewood

The sky won't fall in New Zealand this weekend.

Instead, we'll be partying hard with our gay and marriage-averse straight mates, and waking with clean hair and clothes that smell only of sweat and spilt champagne.

As excited as I am about civil unions, my life-long chronic asthma means I'm more immediately delirious about the Smokefree Environments Amendment Act finally coming into force this weekend.

Let's get something out of the way: this is not an anti-smoking, would everybody please quit now rant. This is a personal sort-of insider's guide to the social life of a non-smoker. I have my vices too, though none of them actually interferes with the air that we breathe (except perhaps my inability to get the car I rarely drive serviced on a regular basis). I wish people wouldn't smoke but I reluctantly accept the reasons that my very wise, healthy and otherwise human rights-focused friends give me for lighting up.

Actually, scrap that. I've spent years apologising for being a non-smoker ("Sorry, could you take that outside please?" "Sorry, I just need to use my inhaler."). I'm going to stop right now. Ah, that feels gooooood.

I got a taste of smoke-free legislation last year during a month in New York. The Clean Indoor Air Act came into force in April 2003. By the time I arrived in late June it was well entrenched and after boozy nights out on the Lower East Side, I'd arrive home at Busytot's (link to Busytown) 116th Street apartment clean and sweet-smelling. Not only that, my long treks home felt extremely safe because the ten-block walk from Ludlow Street across town to the right subway stop was peppered with people milling about, smoking, until all hours of the morning.

Actually, I was blissfully unaware of the smoke-free air until one fateful night when NZ Trade & Enterprise took a bunch of us out to dinner in Spring Street. My visit coincided with the "New Zealand Sounds" day at Central Park's Summerstage, which I'd had a bit to do with in my old job. So Greg Johnson was there, as were Pine (check out their gorgeous new album 'Akira Sunrise' here). After loading up on food and drink courtesy of the NZ Government someone took us on a tour of East Village bars, which only lasted as far as the first bar.

Bar-B, now closed, was still a 'smoking' bar. This was a great little place - dark and narrow, with a girl DJ spinning some wild records in the tiny window booth. The proprietor was apparently able to circumvent the law because he was the owner-operator and sole staff member, responsible only for his own health. The smoking members of our tour party were like pigs in shit there. I wanted to stay longer but half an hour in the haze was all my lungs could handle. So I bid goodnight to the fabulous company and wheezed my way home.

There are times in my life that I haven't been able to breathe. Like, the week before my 21st birthday when my mother rushed me to A&E because I couldn't string a two-syllable word together, let alone a sentence. I spent almost a week in hospital, and it took me another six months to feel brave enough to go into a bar. I am lucky. I have known people who have died of asthma in my lifetime.

Thanks to modern medicine and the breathing techniques taught to me by the wonderful Dinah Bradley-Morrison, my asthma is now well under control. At the age of 31 I've now gone two whole years without a visit to A&E, and I actually never have to use my inhaler when I'm shrouded in cigarette smoke.

But here's the thing about my lungs. They've been damaged from the long-term stress of illness and medicines. Never mind the hair and clothes that need to be washed, for me every smoky night out is followed by two days of 'productive' coughing (that means phlegm, folks). It's embarrassing, disgusting and absolutely fucking annoying. So it's better for me to just leave than to martyr my way through a big night out.

And this is the one argument against the new law that pisses me off the most - the crazy notion that bars will lose business if people can't smoke in them. Bars have already lost some of my business because people could smoke in them.

I've been known to miss the supporting act of a favoured band, because the length of the main act's set is as long as I'm willing to subject myself to inhaling 35 cigarettes simultaneously. A couple of weeks ago I had to leave someone's leaving dinner early when I found I was the only person not smoking at the table.

So bring on the smoke-free air. And keep supporting your local watering holes. To spurn them won't hurt the government that implemented this law, it'll just hurt your local businesses. Besides, in my town, the bars and venues I frequent have made great preparations for the law.

Indigo Bar, where in the past year I've enjoyed Calexico, Bonnie Prince Billy, The Fanatics and The D4 amongst others, now has a massive balcony overlooking Cuba Street. Chow opened its spunky, glass-walled balcony earlier this year. The Matterhorn, in its major revamp from 1960s-style coffee lounge to 21st Century restaurant, made sure to preserve its treasured courtyard.

The clever thing about the smoke-free law is that it's usually introduced at the beginning of summer so that smokers get used to going outside in the warmth before the cruel truth of winter hits. But frequenters of Tory Street jazz venue Happy are well used to it. Happy has been smoke-free since it opened almost two years ago, even providing a marquee to protect smokers from the rain and chill during the recent Wellington Jazz Festival. Its former incarnation, The Space in Newtown, was similarly cigarette-proof.

One Happy regular told me that the smoke-free policy was the wish of musicians who prefer to perform in clean air, saying "It makes sense when your profession involves singing and blowing into an instrument". Reminds me of a Goldenhorse gig at Bodega which featured signs asking the audience to please not smoke near the stage. Good ol' Kirsten. Those are some vocal chords well worth protecting.

And that's the heart of the law. It's not actually about me. It's about the people working in the bar, whether they be the waiter, the DJ or the drummer. I was once a waiter at the most activist- and organics-friendly café on K Road. I loved the job, the clientele, my workmates. But apart from a dinner-break, the only staff who got breaks otherwise were the smokers. It was an illegal, unfair, totally unwritten rule of the catering jungle, and the implicit message to the rest of us was 'get over it'. This is not some horrific 'hospo' secret I'm uncovering here. Anyone in the industry will tell you that this is probably still the case. Smokers have always seemed to me to get the fairer deal. But the law's changed, so... get over it.

Me? I'll be at Happy this Saturday watching Pine and breathing easy.