Restaurant Group Balks At Bid to Tighten Rules

In January, the District's smoking ban will be extended to bars. Business owners and proponents of the ban are fighting over specifics.
In January, the District's smoking ban will be extended to bars. Business owners and proponents of the ban are fighting over specifics. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 12, 2006

A group that represents restaurants and bars in the District is trying to block proposed regulations that could toughen smoking ban provisions scheduled to go into effect Jan. 2.

In January, the D.C. Council approved the ban and gave the mayor's administration the responsibility of creating the regulations to accompany it. In April, the city implemented provisions of the ban that cover the dining areas of restaurants and most indoor workplaces, and beginning in January, the smoking ban will apply to bars.

The law does not ban smoking outside the establishments and allows exemptions for businesses that can demonstrate that the prohibition "has caused or will cause undue financial hardship."

Now the D.C. Health Department and proponents of the ban are pushing stricter regulations that business owners fear will remove the exemptions established within the law.

The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington met with city officials this month to discuss rejecting any proposed rules that would limit smoking in outdoor areas -- a restriction the Health Department is pushing.

Health officials have also suggested that business owners who apply for economic hardship waivers should have to prove that they have lost 15 percent of their business over three consecutive months compared with the same period in the past two years.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams's representatives have met with interested parties and plan to have a final version of the regulations ready within a month, said Vince Morris, the mayor's spokesman.

Although the Health Department, headed by Gregg A. Pane, has made several suggestions, Morris said the agency will not have the final say.

"The Department of Health is one of the participants in the process, and the mayor respects where Dr. Pane is coming from on this, but he also has to balance the desires of everyone else who is a party on this," Morris said. "That includes our restaurant and tourism and hospitality industry."

When the council approved the ban, Williams said he was concerned that a prohibition would hurt the city's hospitality industry. He flirted with the idea of vetoing the bill but allowed the legislation to be enacted without his signature.

"We want the regulations to be consistent with the law," said Andrew J. Kline, general counsel for the restaurant association. "All of the ban proponents across the board want to eliminate any possibility that there will be any exemptions."

Jennifer Friedman, a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said: "We never wanted the waiver process in the first place. That's what we gave up to get it passed."

But ban proponents also knew that the process of approving the law and the regulations would give them a chance to lobby for stronger rules.

Morris said no one will be completely satisfied with the final version of the regulations.

"Ultimately, if you make everyone a little bit unhappy, then we probably succeeded in striking the right compromise," he said.

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