Proposed Smoking Ban in Washington, D.C.

Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Eric M. Weiss was online Wednesday, June 22, at Noon ET to examine a proposed smoking ban in District bars and restaurants.

Recent Post Coverage:

Hazy Views Are Rare in Debate Over Smoking Ban (Post, June 19)

Smoking Ban Gaining In D.C. (Post, June 15)

The transcript follows.


Eric M. Weiss:

Hello all, smokers and non.

I am standing by to answer any trenchant questions or witty comments about the city's proposed smoking ban that will either save or ruin the Republic, depending on one's POV.

So fire away...


Washington, D.C.: Why can't restaurants with bars allow smoking in the bar area only and the rest of the restaurant be smoke-free?

I cannot stand eating my meal in or around smoke but I do agree that smokers have rights too. IMO, when they are dying (years from now like my mother did) they'll wish they had sat in the smoke-free section and quit altogether.

Eric M. Weiss: Aha!

That is the currently situation in many of the city's restaurants. Relatively few eateries still allow one to smoke while munching on olive-oil poached halibut with green pea risotto.

Proponents say smoke doesn't stay put in the no-smoking section and doesn't do anything to protect workers.


Vienna, Va.: What is their problem with allowing at least some bars (even a handful) to allow smoking in some capacity? I mean, let's face it, some dark basement pubs are conducive to drinking beer, shooting pool, throwing darts, and smoking cigarettes. Just as the majority of restaurant patrons may disapprove of smoking in restaurants, the majority of people, and in some cases almost everyone, at other establishments would disapprove of the smoking ban. People are not as stupid as these nanny politicians assume. They know what they are getting when they go somewhere. Having said all that, I see no stop to this ban. Sounds good for Arlington nightlife.

Eric M. Weiss: Dearest Vienna:

Ban opponents say that is exactly the way to go. Let Adam Smith's invisible hand of the free market decide which bars are smokey and non. The District already has almost 200 non-smoking venues.

But anti-smoking activists say businesses need a level playing field so everyone needs to go smoke-free at the same time. That is also the way other cities have done it.


San Francisco, Calif.: Just a comment. I am a nonsmoker who doesn't much like being around cigarette smoke, but I opposed the ban in bars that went into effect here several years ago because I thought, what the heck, bars aren't health clubs and smokers should be able to have someplace to go and light up. Now, I must say the ban has been a huge success. The drop in customers many predicted has not occurred. Bars and clubs do not stink, and neither do you after you've been in one for an hour or so. I doubt you would find many in SF now who oppose the ban, even among smokers.

Eric M. Weiss: Dear Bay City:

That's because there are one six smokers left in San Francisco.

Seriously, that is the argument that ban proponents make. The New York City government did a report one year after the ban took place and found that, all-in-all, residents were in favor of it. Then again, there are more non-smokers than smokers around.


Arlington, Va.: California forbits smoking in its restaurants. We were walking along Venice Beach and stopped at a restaurant for a snack and a brew. As it was nice, we sat outside where we discovered we were in a place where smokers were allowed. It is sad that the smokers are the only people who get to enjoy the view and the fresh air.

Eric M. Weiss: Dearest Arlington:

You should get out more...


Washington, D.C.: Curious here -- why do many places that allow smoking prohibit clove cigarettes? I don't smoke, but I have noticed that the clove cigarettes have a much less annoying smell than the regular ones.

Eric M. Weiss: Interesting question. Because they are relatively rare, clove cigarettes are not part of the regular smoky haze that one expects in bars, so it bothers some folks. I, for one, can notice a clove smoker from across the room. Other places frown on pipes or cigars.


Washington, D.C.: As an asthmatic (and a D.C. voter!) I'm so glad to hear we're finally coming out of the dark ages and recognizing that smokers hurt more than just themselves. It's not ok to spray pepper spray in a bar, why's it ok to smoke inside a bar?

I comment all the advocates working to pass this legislation. It will save money on healthcare, will lengthen lives, will make our clothes not stink, and will finally allow me to go out at night!

Eric M. Weiss: If you squirt pepper spray in a restaurant you will be arrested and thrown in the pokey. Smoking is still legal.


Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: I'm frankly tired of people saying how smoky bars and restaurants make your hair and clothes smell bad. That's a weak complaint.

What we really need to talk about is acute heart attacks ( ), sinus infections and asthma. Why do immediate effects on workers and patrons get so little discussion in this debate? Sure everyone knows about the links between cancer and secondhand smoke, but I don't think people understand how adversely it can affect you in the short term.

Eric M. Weiss: I am also surprised at how often this complaint comes up when discussing the ban. I guess it is because it is the most immediate ill effect of going out to a smoky bar (assuming that one leaves alone). Lung cancer and all that nasty stuff takes a while to kick in.


Washington, D.C.: Carol Schwartz's stunt of introducing a ban on alcohol sales/consumption just makes the D.C. Council look like a circus. How much time did she waste drafting and calling for votes on this joke just to "prove" a point she could have simply stated during debate over the smoking ban proposal?

Eric M. Weiss: One politician's stunt is another politician's brilliant way to break through all of the media static.Considering the news coverage that Schwartz's "circus" garnered, I'm sure she feels closer to the latter. Anyone who suffered through the 12-hour hearing (me) can testify that every possible argument and angle was well explored.

This was a way to present her argument through satire, which has been a successful debating topic since Plato tried to push through a smoking ban.

Ms. Schwartz told me yesterday that she got the idea when she was walking her dog in Adams Morgan, came home and started writing it in longhand. She said she finished at around 3 a.m.


Tobacco Row, N.C.: Since the smokers can walk outside, why it the smoking ban such a hardship?

Eric M. Weiss: I take it from the question that you are not a smoker. Well, for one thing, it is not fun to have to stop your conversation, leave your drink and your friends, trudge up stairs or out the door and stand in the rain/snow/miserable D.C. August. Some folks consider sitting around with friends, a cold beer and a smoke to be a pleasant way to pass time.


Bethesda, Md.: When will the DC Council vote on this new law and if it gets passed, when will it be in effect?

I very much welcome this law and sure hope it gets passed.

Eric M. Weiss: Good question. If you know the answer could you email me at

Okay, here's where it stands. There are three comprehensive ban bills introduced. Two are in Schwartz's Public Works and the Environment Committee. One is David Catania's Health Committee. In order to pass, committees have to hold a hearing and report the bill out to the full 13-member council.

Schwartz held a hearing but has said she will not report out the full ban. She is calling for a compromise.

Catania has offered to hold a hearing and a vote in his committee in the fall.

Council members are hesitant to go around powerful committee chairs because most council members chair a committee (good ol' self interest.)

Proponents say they will either wait for Catania to do his thing or try to go around Schwartz and pass an "emergency'' bill, which goes to the full council. But an emergency bill only lasts for a short period of time and some members say they will vote for a full ban but not an emergency bill that will insult Schwartz and the committee process.

Nine of the 13 members say they support a full ban, some more strongly than others.

So, once again, if you have the answer, let me know...


20009: Drunken morons in bars who bump into me while dancing poorly, spill drinks, and interrupt my conversations with their inane shouting are extremely annoying. We all know that stress is a killer, and they aren't helping any ... plus a lot of people who hang out in bars tend to smell pretty badly after a while. So my question is, can I get people who annoy me banned from bars?

Eric M. Weiss: Since you live in 20009, which is party central (Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle) I assume you have more than enough experience with annoying drunks. Just stay away from the pepper spray, okay pal?


Washington, D.C.: There seems to be a bit of hypocrisy in the bills to ban smoking in D.C. The first is that the two bills calling for an outright ban on public smoking in the District specifically exempt city government from the ban.

The second, former Congressman Al Swift spoke and said that he fully supported the smoking ban, but that he was worried about unintended consequences, specifically that cigar bars should be exempted. Jim Graham agreed with him, noting that cigar bars were "special" places where people gathered to smoke, socialize, and eat and drink.

Has any of this been brought up in the public debate? It seems to me that ordinary citizens might reconsider the proposed legislation knowing that there are exceptions for the elite who enjoy cigars and the D.C. Government.

Eric M. Weiss: The various bills have exceptions (carve-outs, in leg-speak) for tobacco stores and strip clubs. There may even be interest in protecting hoookah bar, like the one that opened up on 18th Street NW recently.


Washington, D.C.: Why is it that no one focuses on the source of funding for the pro-smoking backers? and constantly mis-inform on the source of funding for smoke free, which is now entirely funded by individual contributions (Robert Wood Foundation grant expired 2/2004, while the cigarette industry is still contributing - $10,000 for the restaurant association awards dinner).

Eric M. Weiss: In political debates one side is always trying to question the forces behind their opponents. After all, it is easier to demonize "Big Tobacco" than the worried tavern owner down the street. Likewise with ban proponents. It is easier to portray the efforts of ban proponents as puppets of the health lobby and out-of-state organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

(By the way, as a reformed New Jerseyan, I take offence at the way opponents stress that the foundation is Jersey-based as if it is prima facie evidence of evilness...)


Alexandria, Va.: If non-smokers were such a staggering majority wouldn't there already be an ample offering of smoke-free bars to cater to their needs?

Eric M. Weiss: Good point. There are already about 200 restaurants and bars in the District that are smoke-free. Obviously every bar and restaurant accommodates non-smokers. But if you are a smoker, and there are still about 45 million Americans who light up, where do you go? Business people have a natural reaction against turning away customers, especially those who, anecdotally spend more and tip better.


Washington, D.C.: Bars are among the last places in D.C. where indoor smoking isn't completely prohibited. If a smoking ban goes into effect in bars, watch business plummet -- that has been the experience in NY, and especially in Boston, which is a more comparable market.

Eric M. Weiss: That is a common--and very real--fear among tavern owners in the District. But the data doesn't really support that concern. A New York City government study showed that the city's bar and restaurant industry was thriving one year after the ban was enacted in March 2003, with business tax receipts up 8.7 percent and employment up by more than 10,000 jobs. In Massachusetts, the Harvard School of Public Health found little or no change in bar and restaurant patronage, meal tax collections or alcoholic beverage excise taxes after the ban was put in place last July.

If there will be folks hurt by a ban, it will be smaller bars that rely on drinks rather than food and don't have an outdoor area where smokers can go.


Washington, D.C.: Go Carol! I hope her colleagues get the message. This proposed smoking ban seems so unnecessary when most restaurants are either smoke free or well ventilated. As a smoker, I rarely smoke inside a restaurant anyway, even when I can. Banning smoking in bars is a bit much. It's just not right! The majority of people like smoke in bars and it's not fair to change the culture and infringe upon civil liberties to appease a few people with "allergies" who probably wouldn't be caught dead in a bar anyway! It smacks of elitist bull. Do you think this ban has a prayer of passing?

Eric M. Weiss: Are you asking me to predict the behavior of the unpredictable D.C. Council? Do I sound crazy?

This much we know. Last year, three council members supported a ban. Now there are nine. The mayor was "100 percent'' opposed two years ago. Now he is in favor, saying that there is no evidence that it will hurt the city's hospitality industry.

Council members Jim Graham, who represents party areas such as Adams Morgan and U Street NW, and Jack Evans, who represents Georgetown, have come out in favor of a ban. Those guys are smart pols and don't like to be on the losing side of issues, especially after all the pressure they've received from all the bar and restaurant owners in their districts.

Carol Schwartz, the leading ban opponent, herself admits that the other side has the votes.

So, you predict...


U St., D.C.: Is this smoking ban about the health of workers, the smell of people's clothes, personal preferences, the weather outside, or what? To me it seems like nothing more than a vocal, hypervigilant minority making a value-based decision for everybody. We tried that once, it was called PROHIBITION. Didn't we learn our lesson?

Eric M. Weiss: That is exactly what smokers say. But drinking yourself to death doesn't impact the guy on the next bar stool. Smoking does, anti-smoking activists point out.

In observing the debate, there does seem to be a deep-seated animus among smokers toward the ban proponents. They see them as zealots who spend their time trying to deprive people of a small, if very dangerous, pleasure.


Eric M. Weiss: Thanks all! It's been fun. I hope you follow the issue in the pages of the Post and on


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