D.C. Smoking Ban Approved
Mayor Weighs Veto Despite 11-1 Council Vote

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

The D.C. Council gave final approval yesterday to a broad ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and other public places, voting 11 to 1 to add the nation's capital to a growing list of smoke-free cities and states.

Although Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) continued to voice concerns about the measure's effect on small businesses and the city's hospitality industry, the overwhelming support on the council suggested that the ban's proponents have enough votes to override a mayoral veto.

The District's smoking ban, modeled closely on New York City's, would apply immediately to all restaurant dining rooms and would be extended to bars, nightclubs, taverns and the bar areas of restaurants in January 2007.

National anti-smoking activists hailed the vote, saying that having the nation's capital go smoke-free carries great symbolic importance. "It puts an exclamation point on what we see as a national trend," said Daniel Smith, vice president of government affairs for the American Cancer Society.

Several bar owners and employees reacted with dismay.

"Oh, man, it's gonna hurt," said Rob Klein, the bartender at Chief Ike's Mambo Room, a bar in Adams Morgan. "It's going to take people away from my bar stools, and that's how I pay my rent."

Geoff Tracy, owner of Chef Geoff's, said that the dining areas in his two District restaurants have always been smoke-free but that he expects his bar business to drop by 5 to 10 percent when the full ban goes into effect.

A New York government study showed that the city's bar and restaurant industry was thriving one year after its ban was enacted in March 2003. And in Massachusetts, the Harvard School of Public Health found little or no change in bar and restaurant patronage or tax collections after that state's ban was put in place in July 2004.

Williams has 10 days to decide whether to veto the bill. He said yesterday that he is considering a veto, despite the likelihood that the council would override it. "You're talking about a lot of people's livelihoods, and I don't think we should take that for granted," he said.

Bans are in place in at least 10 states, including California and New York. Locally, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have bans, and Howard County Council members voted this week to prohibit smoking in new restaurants and bars.

The District bill would include exemptions for outdoor areas, hotel rooms, retail tobacco outlets and cigar bars. The measure also would provide an economic-hardship waiver for businesses that demonstrate a "significant negative impact."

Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) cast the dissenting vote. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) was absent.

Schwartz said the issue was personal choice and freedom. "Don't make me out that I like smoking, because I don't," said Schwartz, an ex-smoker. "Bar and restaurant workers have a choice of where to work, and patrons have a choice of where to patronize."

The council debated amendments to the bill for more than four hours, rejecting several that supporters warned would weaken the measure, such as exempting businesses of 750 square feet or less.

It also voted down amendments proposed by Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) that would have moved up full implementation to July and tightened the rules for waivers.

The longest debate was over whether to exempt the city's eight hookah bars, where people smoke tobacco out of a shared pipe. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) argued that hookah bars should be exempt because tobacco use is the central focus of their business.

Schwartz then jumped on Graham. "If it's all in the guise of protecting worker health, why would you want to kill off the hookah bar workers?" she said to laughs in the packed council chambers. "The hypocrisy is just astounding."

The council approved the hookah bar exemption, as well as an amendment by Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) to exempt any business that can show that it gets 10 percent or more of its annual revenue from tobacco sales, excluding cigarette machines.

Some ban proponents said Barry's proposal would encourage bars to push tobacco sales to get an exemption. But David A. Catania (I-At Large), who sponsored the bill, said the 10 percent threshold would be very hard to meet.

News of the bill's passage drew sighs of resignation in the polished-wood bar at McCormick & Schmick's restaurant on K Street NW. But even those who grumbled said such bans seem the wave of the future.

Bartender Mark Genberg, a smoker, estimated that three of 10 people who sidle up on an average night are smokers, down from six in 10 a decade ago. Once the ban takes effect, he said, those customers will simply shuttle between the bar and the sidewalk.

Robert Hall Jr., unfiltered cigarette in hand, said he was worried about the ban's effect on plans to double the size of the bar at Olives restaurant, at 16th and K streets NW, where he works as a manager.

"It reminds me of the stories I've heard about Prohibition in the 1930s," he said. "Are we going down a slippery slope, where cigarettes will be completely illegal in this country in 10, 15 years?"

Jon Brothers, 32, a smoker, said he was ambivalent about the ban. "Don't get me wrong. I love to walk into a dive bar and people are smoking cigarettes or whatever," he said. "But I think it's a good idea. It's not going to stop you from going somewhere. I'll have no problem going outside for a cigarette."

Staff writers Lori Montgomery and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

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