D.C. Should Keep the Freedom In Smoke-Free

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, June 9, 2005

A smoke-filled room is an assault, an irritant, a stinking reminder that we are foul creatures who recklessly endanger our own bodies.

A smoke-filled room is an invitation to romance, an intimation of life's mysteries, an evocation of power and intrigue.

In this society, we reserve the right to do stupid things so long as they do not deprive others of their rights. Yet we place limits on our behavior for the common good.

With support from deep-pocketed national institutions intent on forcing social change, people in this city are pushing for a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has pumped more than $70 million into the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, which is bankrolling part of the D.C. drive for smoke-free eateries; Johnson also gave $250,000 to Smokefree D.C., the public face of the campaign.

With support from deep-pocketed national institutions intent on protecting the status quo, people in this city are fighting a ban. The generous folks at Philip Morris have given huge gifts to restaurant trade groups around the nation to fight smoking bans.

The battle over whether Washington will be the next American city to clean out its smoke-filled rooms -- Montgomery County made the move in 2003 -- is entering its endgame with a community forum tonight and D.C. Council hearing next week.

At Bistrot du Coin, a European-style cafe on Connecticut Avenue NW, the menu offers sanctuary to those who feel unwanted in this era of intolerance: "Cigarettes, Cigars: Oui!" Using 20-foot ceilings and huge glass panels that open to the outdoors, co-owner Michel Verdon, a cigar man himself, has created an inviting space where the smoke is not bothersome and customers love to linger.

"People put what they want in their mouths," says Verdon, who is from Switzerland. "We all know it's not good for us. But 40 percent of my customers smoke. They spend more money, they stay longer.

"The people who want this ban couldn't care less about the workers' health. We give every worker the choice of working in the smoking or nonsmoking section." Verdon sees smoke-free as one more step in a puritanical drive against vice and pleasure: "What's next? They're going after foie gras. Next they'll go after places that stay open late."

But Michael Tacelosky, father of the District's smoke-free movement, says he wants more places to drink and linger, not fewer. "Many of us like to drink and would like to go out more often without the smoke," he says. He got involved in the '80s, when airlines still permitted smoking. "I'm very sensitive to smoke, but for a long time, I thought, well, this is a free country. Then I realized that this is a health reaction, and government does belong in regulating public health."

Both sides have felled vast forests to print up stacks of stats about whether smoking bans drive away business, reducing tax revenue. Bottom line: Yes and no. And maybe, too.

But the real issue is whether to force people to give up a socially scorned behavior when that behavior is legal. Alcohol creates social and medical costs; Prohibition flopped. Education has already drastically reduced smoking. So why get heavy-handed about forcing further change?

For several years, Tacelosky has compiled a list of D.C. eateries that have voluntarily gone smoke-free; the list, now up to 194 spots, is a powerful argument for letting the marketplace solve the problem.

The list's author doesn't see it that way: "We're asking people to stand outside because they're hurting others. We're not asking to ban tobacco."

Carol Schwartz, who has led the opposition to a smoking ban on the D.C. Council, proposes a compromise, using tax credits to lure restaurant owners into going smoke-free.

Schwartz, who gave up smoking four years ago after nearly 40 years of addiction, doesn't like to be around smoke. "But that's my choice," she says. "I like freedom of choice about abortion and nude dancing -- consenting adults should have choices. Let's remember, smoking is legal."

A city that thrives on the art of the deal and the celebration of democracy is in no position to traffic in bans and absolutes. Blow away the smoke by persuasion, not fiat.

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