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Posted at 05:00 PM ET, 06/17/2011

Smokefree advocates strike out at D.C. Council over budget vote

UPDATED 5 P.M.

A little-noticed provision in the District budget passed Tuesday by the D.C. Council has anti-smoking forces up in arms, claiming it could allow dozens of previously forbidden indoor cigar-smoking events.

The dustup concerns a provision that would allow any hotel with a liquor license to apply for an exception to the city’s smoking ban “once a year for one day for the purposes of hosting a special event which permits cigar smoking.” Any hotel seeking an exemption would have to notify the city health department, pay a $2,500 fee and allow workers to opt out of the event with no penalty.

On Tuesday, Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) offered an amendment to strip out the language, arguing that it risked hotel workers’ public health. But several members leapt to defend the exemption, arguing that it was intended to allow a single charity event — the huge “Fight Night” fundraiser thrown by the Fight for Children charity, where tuxedoed men and gowned women gather in the Washington Hilton ballroom to watch boxing and puff on cigars.

“This is speaking primarily to a one-time event,” said Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), adding that Fight Night “has raised revenue to some of our most noble causes in the city.” He also noted that the organizers might flee to National Harbor in Prince George’s County should there be no exemption.

Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who has sponsored previous one-time exemptions, said Tuesday that the law “was carefully drafted to apply to only two hotels in the city, for just one event.”

The appeals were effective. Mendelson’s amendment was roundly defeated, with every one of his colleagues voting against it.

But Angela Bradbery, an activist with Smokefree D.C., says the exception was quite a bit broader than advertised. The language that passed Tuesday appears to have tied eligibility for the exemption solely to liquor licensing.

Currently, according to city records, there are 79 outstanding hotel-class licenses.

“[T]here could be dozens of events annually that permit cigar smoking,” Bradbery wrote in a letter to members today. Also, she notes, “Nothing in the measure limits the exemption to charitable events; anyone can take advantage of it.”

Evans said Friday that the language he supported included a provision limiting the exemption’s eligibility to hotels with ballrooms that can seat at least 500. Only the Capital Hilton and Washington Hilton, he said, fall into that category.

But draft budget legislation circulated to members Monday before the vote appeared not to include the 500-seat limitation.

Evans said he agreed with the activists that potentially having 79 cigar-smoking events a year would be too many.

“That was not the intent,” he said.

UPDATE, 5 P.M.: The 500-seat provision was indeed omitted, and there is some debate over how that happened. Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) had intended to include the restriction in the budget, but it was not — possibly because Evans in January introduced a standalone bill that did not include the 500-seat provision.

Brown’s office said there will be some sort of fix pursued that would limit the exemption to a single event per year. It is unclear whether the fix will require an additional vote.

By  |  05:00 PM ET, 06/17/2011

 
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