WASHINGTON – Restaurant and bar owners – and some of their customers – say patrons will go to Virginia if Mayor Anthony A. Williams signs a bill to ban smoking in their establishments.
The D.C. Council voted 11-1 on Jan 4 to join smoke-free cities such as Boston,Dallas,Chicago and New York. The law would force District restaurants to become smoke-free immediately. Bars,taverns and pubs would have until January 2007 to comply.
Sharon Gang,a spokeswoman for Williams,said the mayor has until Monday to make a decision and is considering a veto. The council may override a mayoral veto with nine votes.
Bill Duggan,owner of the Madam's Organ,a bar in the trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood,said customers may go to Virginia,just across the Potomac River,because the tobacco-friendly state does not ban smoking. Three counties in suburban Maryland also ban smoking in restaurants,and the Maryland General Assembly is considering a statewide ban.
Duggan said the government should not regulate such things because it costs bar patrons,workers and owners their freedom.
“There are places where they ban all kinds of unhealthy habits,and I believe they call them churches. I believe people can and do expect different behavior in a bar than they do a church,” Duggan said. “I think the bottom line is choice,and when we remove people's choices,it lessens the deal.”
Patrick Reynolds,president of tobaccofree.org,called the steady trend toward smoking bans across the country an “unstoppable tide.”
The grandson of R.J. Reynolds,former president of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co.,Reynolds said 65 percent to75 percent of voters in most states favor smoking bans. He said 34 percent of the U.S. population lives in cities that ban smoking in restaurants and bars.
“Banning smoking is an idea for a time that's come,” Reynolds said.
Paul Nice,a certified public accountant and self-described regular at 4th Estate Grille in downtown Washington,said a smoking ban would wound the economy because tourists and business people would cross the Potomac to the Virginia suburbs.
Nice,a non-smoker and resident of Springfield,Va.,called the ban “absurd” and said it infringed on owners' rights to conduct lawful business. “This is like the poster child for invasive government.”
David Turkaleski,a D.C. insurance agent and Fairfax,Va.,resident,said he would go to bars in Virginia if the District ban is enacted.
“Honestly,I could care less either way,” he said. “I don't smoke,but it doesn't bother me.”
The ban,which is similar to New York City's,was motivated by a desire to keep workplaces and public places clear of second-hand smoke to better the environment,particularly for employees.
Andrew J. Kline,general counsel for the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington,said neighborhoods near the region's commuter rail lines would benefit if the city enacts the ban.
“One of the biggest fears is that the business is going to go to Virginia,” Kline said. “It's only a short Metro ride away or car ride away.”
Business has declined at restaurants in nearby Montgomery County,Md.,as a result of the ban there,Kline said. The association has 400 restaurant and bar owner members in the District and 600 in Northern Virginia.
The other fear,Kline said,is that the ban will lead to more people smoking on sidewalks outside bars,possibly causing disturbances.
Kline said the association,which is not pro-smoking,believes in choice.
“If there is a substantial demand for smoke-free restaurants and bars,then they will develop without the government mandating it,” he said.
Under the District act,hookah bars (those offering tobacco in Middle-Eastern water pipes),outdoor seating areas,hotel rooms and cigar bars would be exempt.
Patrick Morris,manager at the Capitol Lounge on Pennsylvania Avenue,said he does not understand why the act allows exemptions and asked,“Who are we trying to protect here?”
Morris,a smoker,said the act would adversely affect the lounge,but he said the District government would have to loosen restrictions eventually.
According to the act,if an establishment suffers “significant negative impact” from the ban,the mayor's office could issue a hardship waiver.
Duggan,whose bar has outdoor seating,said smaller bars and restaurants without outdoor smoking areas would suffer more.
“It's tough enough to make it in business,” said Duggan,an adamant smoking opponent. “If you make extra hurdles with regulations,it becomes tougher.”
Renée McPhatter,director of the D.C. Campaign for the American Cancer Society,Cancer Action Network,said smoking bans are “a sign of the times,” noting 13 states have enacted bans.
The District's ban acknowledges an important preventable health hazard,McPhatter said.
A similar smoke-free act died in 2003,and McPhatter attributed this year's success to an education campaign that involved 80 other groups.
People in smoky bars,she said,are exposed to 4,000 chemicals and 60 known carcinogens,including formaldehyde. These pollutants aggravate asthma and may cause lung cancer and heart disease,she said.
“Everyone has the right to breathe smoke-free air in their workplace,and no one should have to choose between their paycheck and their health,” she said.
Nice said the bill is unnecessary because many establishments provide non-smoking sections.
“The D.C. Council needs to understand the art of ventilation,” Nice said.