Stepping into the smoke-filled basement Viennese Café at the United Nations takes a surprised visitor back to the years when New Yorkers used payphones, hailed Checker cabs, and inhaled cigarettes wherever they pleased. Each of the four dozen or so small white marble tables offers an anachronistic centerpiece from bygone days: an aluminum ashtray. The café lies beyond security checkpoints; no tourists are permitted there. Delegates and staff members grab a snack, puff away, and chat while they wait for meetings in the multiple 100-plus seat halls flanking the café. Over the delegates and U.N. staff members’ heads, small plumes billow upward and unite so seamlessly that warring factions around the world should take note from the example—no matter what the brand, they come together under the U.N. roof to form a single carcinogenic cloud.
These smokers aren’t exactly breaking the law; as any New Yorker knows who has stared covetously at the convenient parking spaces reserved for diplomats, the United Nations rests on sovereign territory and its denizens need not adhere to New York law. But in practice, those who use this haunt to flaunt their smoking habit may be guilty of hypocrisy at least —in that indoor smoking goes against the very guidelines the U.N. represents to the worldwide community.
As an unwitting reminder of this contradiction, the café’s walls display framed sketches of European cities, many of which have already implemented their own smoking bans. At the beginning of this year, the EU health commissioner urged a uniform smoking prohibition, sighting health concerns from passive smoke. But tell that to the man with a European accent as thick as his beige wool coat and chunky gold watch, who pulled out a Marlboro Red in the Viennese Café one recent afternoon and lit up in front of a reporter. When asked to comment about the apparent contradiction, the delegate crossed his arms over his identification badge. “The secretariat cannot tell us what to do,” he said. “The General Assembly is for the delegates, it’s our territory.” When asked his name, he exhaled like the smokestack on a coal-engine train and turned the other way.
The former U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, tried and failed to block indoor smoking on the premises—and as a result the Viennese Café remains one of the last bastions of indoor smoking in New York City. In August 2003, Annan announced a smoking ban to take effect the following month, but delegates and diplomats resisted, saying Annan had no right to impose rules on the 192 member states. That leaves the General Assembly members to police their own behavior; they would have to pass a no-smoking resolution themselves. Smoking continued. A year later, Annan sent out a staff-wide e-mail reminding all U.N. employees that the U.N. building was a non-smoking work environment. But judging from the clouds of smoke that still fill the Viennese Café, Kofi Annan memos have about as much effect as Security Council ceasefire resolutions.
According to Brenden Varma, a spokesperson for the new Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea, the no-smoking rules outlined by Annan still stand as official U.N. policy for people who work for the secretariat, but not for the delegates. They work only for their respective countries, not the U.N. itself. “This is de facto what it’s become,” said Varma. “We’re saying the ban applies to the staff and not diplomats. We as a secretariat cannot enforce non-smoking rules on representatives.” That essentially means that in the absence of an enforcer—someone to check the badge around each official neck for the “D” (delegate) or “S” (staff) insignia—denizens of the Viennese Café can inhale freely.
There’s been some rumblings about a formal smoking ban on all UN premises, but it hasn’t progressed beyond a small cough. In July 2006, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted a no-smoking resolution that they hoped would be considered by the General Assembly during their next session—but it never happened.
Unlike the café, no-smoking signs line walls of the Delegate Lounge on the second floor—but smoking continues there as well. Dozens of brands, domestic and internal, can be bought at the magazine stand in the U.N.’s main-floor lobby. “The message is ambivalent,” said one U.N. employee from Canada, who was just finishing up a tuna wrap and about to chase it with a diet Coke and a smoke. “Since they put ashtrays on the table, I use them.”
Some U.N. workers resent the lax enforcement of no-smoking rules—perhaps aware that according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer by as much as 30 percent. Ana Cristina Rodriguez Pineda, a non-smoking U.N. delegate from Guatemala, has weathered the smoke for two and a half years. She admits the smoke makes her uncomfortable, but believes it can help with high-pressure diplomacy. “If you’re negotiating something and you’re with a smoker,” she says, “you’re going to want him to be able to smoke.”
And despite the health concerns, some people believe the U.N. wouldn’t make sense without cigarettes. A thirtysomething NGO worker from Montreal sipped at an espresso and steadily whittled down a cigarette while he waited for the fifth session of the International Criminal Court meeting to start. Like all other smokers interviewed, he asked not to be identified by name for fear of being seen as a hypocrite. As he puffed, he argued that banning smoking at the United Nations would be as illogical as prohibiting sun hats at horse races. “Smoking goes hand and hand with diplomacy,” he said.