New Year Will Clear The Air in D.C. Bars

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 30, 2006

Smoking in District bars is about to be snuffed out, but not without a last, hazy hurrah.

The Jefferson Hotel plans to pass out cigars and cigarettes and have a hookah handy in its fabled lounge on New Year's Eve.

McFadden's Restaurant and Saloon already had its last butt stubbed out Dec. 19 in a cigar-filled night billed as "One Last Smoke."

Nonsmokers may now breathe a sigh of relief.

Nightclubs and restaurant bars must be smoke-free by Tuesday to comply with a ban that most restaurant, bar and hotel owners opposed but that antismoking advocates pushed through the D.C. Council in January.

"Everybody's waiting to see what happens," said Paul J. Cohn, a restaurateur for 25 years and vice chairman of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.

The smoking ban began incrementally. In April, smoking became illegal in the dining areas of restaurants. At 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, the prohibition extends to bars.

Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties in Maryland prohibit smoking in such public places, but Northern Virginia bars remain hospitable to smokers. "As long as we're not on a level playing field with our neighbors in Virginia, it could be a problem," Cohn said.

Council members who sponsored the bill dismissed that argument, saying that restaurants and bars in other states and jurisdictions have survived smoking bans.

"The world didn't end in New York City and did not end in California," said council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3).

The health of residents outweighs business owners' fears, said Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who included the ban in his 2004 campaign platform.

The restaurant association successfully stopped a proposed ban in 2004.

Patterson, Brown, Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), Mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty and Chairman-elect Vincent C. Gray are scheduled to attend a kickoff of the smoking ban Monday at Nathans restaurant in Georgetown. The event is being sponsored by the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network.

In March 2005, council members gathered in the restaurant's nonsmoking dining room to announce the bill's introduction.

Smoking ban proponents credit grass-roots lobbying with providing political pressure to pass the legislation. "One of the reasons that happened was the overwhelming support of D.C. residents," said Renee McPhatter, director of the D.C. campaign for the action network.

McPhatter said her group is disappointed in regulations proposed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) that include an economic hardship waiver. Under Williams's proposal, restaurants and bars would be exempt from the ban if they could show a 5 percent drop in business over three consecutive months. The group considers that too lenient. In New York City, for example, the loss must be 15 percent.

The council has 60 days to reject the regulations, or they go into effect automatically. But Fenty plans to withdraw them and propose others that are as strong as New York's.

"I believe the current smoking regulations should be more stringent to protect service employees and patrons of District establishments," he said in a statement.

At the Jefferson, where the lounge has been lauded as one of the best cigar bars in town, the smoking ban is being greeted as cause for a party. Its New Year's Eve special, which comes with an eight-course meal and costs $200 per person, includes entry to the lounge where cigars and cigarettes will be passed out and a hookah set up, said Kevin Robinson, the hotel's food and beverage director. The night is dubbed "Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em."

But Cohn, of the restaurant association, is an executive with Capital Restaurant Concepts, and 40 per cent of receipts at one of its restaurants comes from the bar. He said he is concerned.

"We'll certainly know by February and March," he said.

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