Smoking Ban Looks Unstoppable in District

Opponents of a proposed D.C. smoking ban march down 14th Street NW.
Opponents of a proposed D.C. smoking ban march down 14th Street NW. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

A citywide ban on smoking in restaurants, bars and other public areas appears headed for final approval today by the D.C. Council, according to supporters and opponents.

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. Today, some members plan to propose at least seven amendments, two to strengthen the bill and the others to weaken it.

But with the votes on the council fairly secure, proponents said the biggest obstacle facing the ban is Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who has not ruled out a veto.

In a last-minute effort to get council members to change their votes, a small but enthusiastic group of several dozen ban opponents marched down 14th Street NW yesterday to the John A. Wilson Building, where they visited council offices. Participants carried signs that said, "Bans Close Bars,'' and shouted, "Down with the nanny state!"

Williams maintains that the bill is "too restrictive," said Vince Morris, a spokesman. "We're always talking, but there's no way to make everybody happy."

If the mayor vetoes the legislation, the council can override it with nine votes.

The District's 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."

Bans are in place in such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Dublin and Rome and are being considered elsewhere. Locally, Montgomery and Prince Georges counties have bans. And just last night, Howard County Council members voted to prohibit smoking in new restaurants and bars while allowing establishments with separate smoking areas to keep them until 2010.

D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), the smoking ban's strongest council opponent, said she doesn't hold out much hope of stopping passage of the ban today.

"Unfortunately, I think it will be basically what happened a month ago,'' Schwartz said, referring to the 12 to 1 preliminary vote. Although she plans to offer amendments to weaken the bill, she doesn't expect much support from her colleagues.

Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), a strong supporter of the ban, said he will propose two amendments to strengthen the bill. One would tighten the requirements for a waiver, and the other would impose the full ban six months earlier.

Schwartz said the only hope for compromise is if Williams vetoes the ban and council members agree to work on a new version.

Bills to ban smoking had not been successful with the D.C. Council in recent years. Supporters say they are succeeding this year because most residents in the city support a smoking ban and because bans in other cities have not had the negative economic impact that opponents predicted.

Katie Acuff, a law student at Catholic University, used to tend bar at My Brother's Place in the District. She said that she would shower twice a day because of the smoke smell and that colds seemed to linger because of her exposure to smoke.

Opponents, including bartenders, restaurant owners and libertarians, say the ban reduces freedom of choice and will hurt D.C. business. Some bartenders and waiters have said that smokers tend to eat more, drink more and tip better.

"It's fine without it," said Patrick Morris, 24, a bartender at the Capital Lounge who participated in yesterday's march. He said most people in a bar smoke or don't mind smoking. Otherwise, he said, they wouldn't be there.

Opponents contend that the free market has already resulted in voluntary bans in most restaurant dining areas, and government doesn't need to be involved.

"I know how to run my business,'' said Geoff Tracy, the owner of two Chef Geoff's restaurants, who participated in the march. "Phil, Adrian and Marion, let me run my restaurant,'' he said, referring to council members Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), Fenty and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

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