Bill to Ban Diners' Smoking Withdrawn

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 7, 2005

A ban on smoking in all dining areas in the District was withdrawn yesterday by its D.C. Council sponsor after the bill failed to garner the support needed to pass on an emergency basis.

But proponents of a comprehensive smoking ban in the District said yesterday's action was more of a bizarre sidetrack than a test of council support for a ban. They said a council majority still favors outlawing smoking in all bars and restaurants, and supporters said they would pursue such a comprehensive ban.

Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) sponsored yesterday's bill, which would have banned smoking in dining areas of restaurants and taverns. The bill fell far short of a comprehensive ban.

Brown had sponsored one of the major pieces of legislation that was referred to a committee headed by Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who is considered the strongest opponent of a ban. But Brown's efforts to break from the council and push the emergency bill was strongly opposed by council allies and anti-smoking activists. Allies said they believed it was the wrong approach and activists said they feared that defeat of an emergency measure would stall momentum for a comprehensive ban. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who supports a stronger ban, said he would not sign Brown's emergency bill even if it passed.

Brown yesterday offered conflicting reasons for his efforts. First, he said his bill would move the issue forward by taking the initial step toward smoke-free restaurants and bars. Later, after withdrawing the bill, he said he was pleased because he saw the lack of support for his legislation as support for a stronger, comprehensive ban.

"Today's a great day. I'm excited having so many colleagues to say, 'No, no, no, no' to this emergency," Brown said. "The reason I'm happy is because we all agree that we don't want something to be limited to the dining room only."

For the measure to pass on an emergency basis -- meaning it bypasses the committee process -- Brown would have needed to persuaded a supermajority -- nine of 13 members -- to vote for it. It was clear yesterday that nothing near that was achievable.

Colleagues on both sides of the issue said they were puzzled by Brown's actions. His allies on the issue complained that Brown didn't coordinate strategy or talk to them about what he was doing. They said that Brown, elected in the fall and serving his first year, campaigned on his support of smoke-free legislation.

"I find it startling," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who supports a comprehensive ban.

Angela Bradbery, co-founder of Smokefree DC, said smoking-ban supporters will now focus on getting a comprehensive ban through the council this fall. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said he planned to hold a hearing on the bill in the fall, after the council's summer recess.

The council did pass the Budget Support Act, which provides the details for the city's spending plan, which includes property tax relief and increased spending for social programs.

The council also approved a prescription-drug bill to force pharmaceutical companies to defend against allegations of "excessive"' pricing. A final vote will be scheduled for the fall. The latest iteration of the bill, sponsored by Catania, would define a drug price as excessive if it is 30 percent higher than the price of the same drug in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia or Germany. The burden of proof would fall on the drug company to defend its prices in court.

"This is a bread-and-butter consumer-protection issue," Catania said. He said the city will spend $203 million on prescription drugs in fiscal 2006, not counting the drug costs that are part of employee and retiree benefits.

He cited research that showed a 200mg capsule of Celebrex is 75 cents in Australia, $1.58 in Germany and $3.19 in the United States.

Catania said that the city conceivably could save tens of millions of dollars as a result of the legislation and that the money could be plowed back into paying for health care for the city's uninsured.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company