By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and a majority of the D.C. Council now support a comprehensive smoking ban in District bars and restaurants, meaning the District could go smoke-free by the end of the year.
City Administrator Robert C. Bobb said the mayor was "100 percent opposed" to a ban when it was proposed two years ago because of worries about the city's hospitality industry. Since then, the mayor has been convinced by the experiences of other jurisdictions, including New York and Montgomery County, that a smoking ban would not have a negative economic impact. Bobb testified during a 12-hour hearing of the council's Public Works and the Environment Committee.
Sensing that momentum has shifted in their favor, council members who favor a ban said yesterday that they will push to have the bill moved out of committee before the council's July 15 recess. They said nine of the 13 members support some smoking restrictions. Last year, only three council members supported a ban.
The council is considering three bills that would require that all District workplaces, including bars and restaurants, be smoke-free.
"The handwriting is on the wall," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who announced support for the ban last week, rebuffing a strong anti-ban lobbying effort by some Ward 1 restaurants and bars, many of them in Adams Morgan and along U Street NW. Graham said the issue was first and foremost about public health.
Opponents said a smoking ban would be another step -- joining rules on the use of seat belts, motorcycle helmets and cell phones -- on the path toward government-as-nanny.
More than 130 witnesses signed up to testify during yesterday's hearing, including bar owners, restaurant managers, bartenders, waiters and customers.
"I mean, really, you're treating us like children," testified writer Christopher Hitchens. He recalled the conviviality of Herb White's bar on P Street NW, where writers would get discounted drinks. Hitchens, a British citizen and enthusiastic smoker, said a ban would be un-American.
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), chairman of the committee and the council's strongest opponent of a ban, said that the District is unlike other cities and states because it relies so heavily on the hospitality industry and that out-of-state competition is just a quick Metro ride away in Virginia or Prince George's County.
"It does appear this time around that the votes may be there for a total ban, regardless of what I do," Schwartz said. "And I can be circumvented. But just because you have the votes doesn't mean you can't compromise."
Schwartz has introduced a bill that would provide tax incentives for establishments to go smoke-free while requiring others to install expensive air filtration systems.
But Schwartz appears to be losing control of the issue. She bottled up the bill in her committee last session until it died. But this year, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) has offered to move a similar smoking ban bill out of his Health Committee.
And council members Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said yesterday that if Schwartz does not act by the council recess, they will introduce a ban as an emergency bill, which would bypass the committee structure and go to the full council for a vote.
Witnesses for each side of the issue arrived yesterday with briefcases filled with studies and statistics that showed that a smoking ban either had no effect on businesses or ravaged the hospitality economy in places where it was instituted.
They differed over who truly represented the interests of hospitality workers. Ban proponents said the effort is centered on protecting workers from the ill effects of second-hand smoke. But bar owners, managers and workers themselves said the council was jeopardizing their livelihoods and the freedom of choice of their customers.
"Not all workers want to be protected," said Kelly Rader, a member of Ban the Ban, an organization that sells T-shirts that say, "Smoking is healthier than fascism."
Other witnesses told of family members who did not smoke but died of smoking-related illnesses because a spouse smoked or because they spent time in smoky environments.
Seven states, including California, New York and Massachusetts, 1,900 U.S. localities and Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Italy and New Zealand have comprehensive smoke-free laws, according to the American Cancer Society.
Melvin R. Thompson, a representative of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, testified that since the smoking ban was enacted in Montgomery County in October 2003, the number of restaurants and bars with liquor licenses that paid state sales tax declined from 526 in March 2003 to 402 in December 2004. He said beer keg sales in the county declined by 2,366, noting that 300,000 fewer glasses of beer were poured from April to December 2004 than in the same period a year earlier.
Ban proponents said the economic impacts have not been as severe as opponents said.
Bobb said the mayor studied New York City's one-year review of its ban, which showed that the city's bar and restaurant industry was thriving, business tax receipts were up 8.7 percent, employment was up by more than 10,000 jobs and New Yorkers overwhelmingly supported the law.
Brown, a co-introducer of one of the smoking ban bills, said that if smoking bans really wreaked economic havoc on bars and restaurants, politicians would be falling over themselves to repeal the bans.
"No one is jumping up to repeal in Montgomery County, no one's jumping up to repeal in New York City, no one is jumping up in California, are they?" Brown said.