D.C. Inches A Step Closer To Becoming Smoke-Free

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

The D.C. Council voted 12 to 1 yesterday to prohibit smoking in bars, restaurants and other indoor public places, bringing the District closer to joining New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Dublin and Rome as cities with smoking bans.

The measure would make all restaurant eating areas smoke-free but would give bars, clubs, taverns and the bar areas of restaurants until January 2007 to go smoke-free. Before a final vote on the measure, several members plan to push to have the full ban implemented sooner.

The council could vote this month or in January.

"We've crossed a threshold today," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). "We're going to have a comprehensive smoking ban approved by early next year."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said yesterday he is undecided whether he would sign the legislation. The measure, however, passed with a veto-proof majority yesterday.

Williams said he is concerned about its potential effect on small businesses and the city's large hospitality industry.

"This could really be of economic detriment to the city," he said.

In the Washington area, Montgomery, Talbot and Prince George's counties have enacted smoking bans, and Howard County is considering one.

The District's smoke-free proposal is similar to New York's ban. It would include exemptions for outdoor areas, cigar bars, hotel rooms, retail tobacco outlets and facilities that research the effects of smoking.

The measure also would provide an economic-hardship waiver for businesses that could demonstrate a "significant, negative impact." Smoking ban advocates view that provision as a large loophole that they will seek to tighten.

Before the ban won preliminary approval, council members defeated two attempts to weaken it. They rejected a proposal by council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) to exempt bars, taverns and nightclubs.

The council also voted against a substitute bill, written by council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), that would allow smoking in bars and restaurants that installed high-capacity air cleaners and restricted smoking to certain areas.

"I don't like it, either," Schwartz said, referring to cigarette smoke. "But there are 200 [non-smoking] venues in the city I can choose so that I don't have to be around it."

Schwartz cast the only vote against the ban yesterday. She is chairman of the council's Committee on Public Works and the Environment, where smoking ban measures have been stalled for the past two years.

In recent months, when it became clear that a comprehensive ban was gaining votes, Schwartz tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a compromise. Instead, ban proponents went around her by crafting a bill that could be referred to the council's health committee, whose chairman is David A. Catania (I-At Large).

The measure the council passed yesterday includes language largely drafted by Catania, who said it reflected a thoughtful and deliberate effort that would ban smoking in most bars and restaurants only after a transition period that would give owners time to build outdoor seating or roof bars and allow the city's health department to ramp up enforcement efforts.

"I'm pleased that we were able to move forward on this important health issue," Catania said. The fact that both sides are not totally happy with the bill means it was a good compromise, he added.

"This is good progress," said Angela Bradbery, co-founder of Smokefree DC, which has spent the past few years agitating for a comprehensive smoking ban by portraying it as a worker health issue.

Still, advocates on both sides of the issue said they hope the measure will be amended in their favor during its second reading.

"It certainly doesn't look promising, but we remain hopeful," said Lynne Breaux, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. Her organization has strongly opposed the measure, saying it would hurt the District's hospitality industry.

In other business, the council considered several measures that would address reports of no-bid contracts and other spending concerns documented in recent Washington Post articles.

The council voted unanimously to establish a nine-member task force to look at reforming the city's contracting and procurement process. But council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), who sponsored emergency legislation establishing the task force, withdrew a second bill that would have placed restrictions on certain other spending practices that have come under scrutiny. Williams had asked the council to wait until a hearing on related issues Friday.

"I would ask the council to refrain from rushing to any 'quick fix' without ensuring that you have accurate and complete information upon which to make an informed judgment about what measures are needed," Williams wrote in a letter to the council.

Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company