Transcript

D.C. Council Passes Smoking Ban

Brooke Oberwetter and Michael Tacelosky
Spokesperson for "Ban the Ban"; and Co-Founder of "Smokefree DC"
Wednesday, December 7, 2005; 2:00 PM

The D.C. Council voted 12 to 1 Tuesday to prohibit smoking in bars, restaurants and other indoor public places, bringing the District closer to joining New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Dublin and Rome as cities with smoking bans, Washington Post staff writer Eric M. Weiss reported Wednesday.

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. Before a final vote on the measure, several members plan to push to have the full ban implemented sooner.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said Tuesday he is undecided whether he would sign the legislation. The measure, however, passed with a veto-proof majority yesterday.

Brooke Oberwetter, spokesperson for Ban the Ban -- a non-partisan grassroots coalition working to stop the smoking ban in Washington, D.C. -- and Michael Tacelosky, co-founder of Smokefree DC -- a citizen-based group whose goal is to promote smokefree environments in the city -- were online Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss Tuesday's D.C. Council vote.

The transcript follows.

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Michael Tacelosky: Hello, I'm Michael 'Tac' Tacelosky, co-founder of Smokefree DC. We are a group of citizens that's trying to pass a law in DC to make all indoor public places smokefree, and can be found on the web at http://www.smokefreedc.org

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Brooke Oberwetter: Good afternoon--I'm really happy to be here, especially given the importance of this issue for so many of our small business owners. By way of introduction, I guess all I can say is that I'm extremely disappointed with the DC Council today for their decision to move forward with what I like to call the Northern Virginia Nightlife Subsidy Act of 2005, which was of course referred from the Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

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Washington, D.C.: For Michael Tacelosky:

I find it rather frightening to think that the city council can arbitrarily tell business owners what they can and can't permit on their own property. Smoking is a perfectly legal activity. If business owners want to be "smokefree," let them decide on their own. If it were profitable for them to do that, don't you think they would? They are the ones that must meet budgets and pay bills, not you or the city council. Why do you get to tell them how to run their business?

Michael Tacelosky: It's not arbitrary, it's one of many public health laws that apply to restaurants and bars. We (well, the government) tell them what temperature to wash their dishes, how to use cutting boards, and that they can't use lead paint. Secondhand smoke causes diseases, like the other things mentioned, so we're adding this to the list of things that are not allowed.

If secondhand smoke didn't causes diseases, and it just smelled bad, this would be a completely different argument. But it does cause heart disease and cancer.

Brooke Oberwetter: Well, that's sort of a silly analogy I think. Safe food handling measures and building codes and lead in the water--those are the sort of things that ordinary people with no particular level of expertise can't identify or avoid on their own.

Secondhand smoke isn't like that--smoke is easily identifiable and easily avoidable. That people choose not to avoid it and then complain about it has always struck me as odd.

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Washington, D.C.: Brooke,

Do you admit that second-hand smoke has adverse health effects?

Why do the majority of your coalition refuse to admit that smoking is dangerous? Doesn't this effect your credibility?

Brooke Oberwetter: Well, I'm not a scientist and neither is Tac. But I'd say it's a fair bet that inhaling a bunch of secondhand smoke is probably not the healthiest thing you can do. But that's beside the point. People do lots of things that aren't healthy, and going into bars is among them.

You may find it hard to believe, but a lot of people would rather spend their time in, oh, I don't know, a bar rather than a health club that happens to serve alcohol.

Michael Tacelosky: And many, many people would rather spend their time in a smokefree bar, listening to music, playing pool, shooting darts, whatever.

More importantly, people have to work there, and they shouldn't have to be exposed to toxic chemicals while they're working.

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Logan Circle, Washington, D.C.: The smoking ban is a travesty. Tobacco is a product that is legally grown, processed and sold in the United States to consenting adults. If the owner of a bar chooses to allow adults to consume that legal product in their business that should be the owner's choice.

Michael Tacelosky: Alcohol is a legal product, and in some places it's legal to drink and drive. Not in DC -- we restrict the use of a legal product because it harms other people.

This is not a ban. DC has a ban on handguns -- no handguns are allowed in the District. This law extends the current smoking restrictions to more places. Smokers can still smoke by going outside. Smokefree DC does not support a ban on tobacco sales or use.

Brooke Oberwetter: Actually Tac, drinking and driving is not illegal. DRUNK driving is illegal. That's a distinction a lot of health-nannies fail to understand.

And don't be fooled by the line that a ban is all they're after: this is just the beginning. Once this ban takes effect, we'll see all sorts of new regulations about loitering and noise and so forth--we've seen it all over the country. In some places, once indoor bans pass, they move on to sidewalk bans, and then public park bans--apparently the only place the anti-smoking zealots want people smoking outside is in the middle of the street!

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Washington, D.C.: I fully support a smoke free DC and smokers do not have a right to make their habit my problem. Smoking is a disease and causes cancer and numerous other health problems not just in the smoker but in those around them. Citizens and employees around DC have the right not to have to inhale second hand smoke on a daily basis. Thanks to all at Smokefree DC for their support!

Michael Tacelosky: Thanks for your support! Please go to www.smokefreedc.org and make sure your elected officials hear your voice as well.

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Smoker in NYC: I am a smoker in New York City. I think the ban is a terrible thing - not because I want to smoke that badly when I am in a bar or a restaurant, but because it is just a huge violation of rights. Why can't they make it more of a choice? I have several ideas:

1. Ban smoking when food is served. When the grill turns off and the kitchen is closed, patrons can smoke.

2. Make bars/restaurants apply for and pay for a smoking license (like a liquor license, although I really have no idea what is involved in that process).

3. Give bars/restaurants who voluntarily ban smoking some sort of tax break or benefit.

I understand that people do not want to be clouded in second-hand smoke when they go out, but smoking is still legal! Either make smoking illegal, or let us do it.

One more tip - if the smoking ban does go through, businesses should make sure to put ashtrays outside. I see cigarette butts piled up all over the place because you have to go outside to smoke, but many places do not have ashtrays outside. On the plus side, I have met some very interesting people while outside smoking!

Michael Tacelosky: We don't give restaurants a license that allows them to violate other health codes, so we shouldn't here either.

I agree that ashtrays outside are a good idea. In fact, there are some smoking urns that have worked well in other cities, and are even more attractive than a basic ashtray.

Brooke Oberwetter: I think Tac is a little idealistic--as we've seen time and again, the forces that created the anti-smoking movement in DC won't stop with an indoor ban.

In fact, the anti-smoking movement just recently ousted one of the most prominent tobacco control researchers in the country, Michael Siegel. And they did it because he challenged their strict dogma and unethical tactics.

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U Street: Why not let the market take care of the smoking issue? In my neighborhood Halo does not allow smoking, Cafe Saint-Ex doesn't allow it when dinner is being served and Bar Pilar and Creme discourage it. If people don't want smoke there are places they can go where is there is no smoking. If people want to smoke then there are places that freely allow it. The Black Cat comes to mind. The same goes for workers. If they don't want to be around smoke they can take jobs at smoke-free places. Why not let grown-ups make their own choices?

Michael Tacelosky: The libertarian argument "let the market decide" would also have us getting rid of public health laws, minimum wage laws, disabled-access laws and anti-discrimination laws. The market needs to operate fairly within the laws set down by our government. Consistently, our society has asked for, through our elected officials, laws that protect public health and provide equal, fair access for patrons, employees. The market doesn't get to decide if asbestos is okay, or fire exits and alarms, or most things related to public health and safety.

Brooke Oberwetter: Again, the slippery slope argument that allowing someone to smoke a cigarette in a bar will inevitably lead to rat feces in your soup is a preposterous analogy.

There are risks that are unseen, which we should protect people from, and risks that are unseen, which we shouldn't.

The bottom line, U Street, is that when grown-ups are allowed to make decisions for themselves, health "advocates" don't get to make the choices for them. And that's simply unacceptable to them.

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Suburban Maryland: I am not a smoker. I don't especially like smoke, but I am not in favor of bans. I am not usually a civil libertarian, but this is a case where I think I feel that it is a civil liberty issue for smokers. In fact it is also a civil liberty issue for non smokers, if people don't want to be around smoke, then the answer is simple: don't go to places where you will be around smoke.

I am also not normally a free market capitalist, but I think if that patrons truly wanted smoke free restaurants, then restaurateurs would have offered them by now. If it was economically viable then it would happen without a government mandate.

In addition, I have a friend who is very active in the smoke-free movement. One of his arguments is that it is a occupational safety issue for restaurant workers. .that government has protected workers in many industries over the years and that this is an extension of the American impulse to protect workers. I counter by saying that many jobs have occupational safety issues that workers accept. In fact, every bartender I have ever talked to says they would not do what they do if they minded smoke.

These are just some of my thoughts on the subject.

Michael Tacelosky: Of course the bartenders you talk to are willing to put up with the smoke -- they already are. But there are many people who aren't working in these places because there are so few options for people who want to breathe carcinogen-free air and want to work in (or go to) a bar in DC.

Being a bartender shouldn't be a dangerous job. It isn't in Montgomery County, New York, Boston, or California, it shouldn't be in DC either.

Brooke Oberwetter: I'm glad you used the word "dangerous," Tac, because I just happen to have the Bureau of Labor Statistics fatality by occupation data in front of me. Logging, roofing, truck driving, farming, and fishing are dangerous jobs. Only 5 waiters and waitresses died on the job last year and they were all from assaults. That isn't dangerous. It's unhealthy. There's a world of difference.

And bartending shouldn't be unhealthy? Are there really a lot of folks who go out and get bartending jobs because they're healthy?

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Downtown, Washington, D.C.: Michael, have you conducted a poll of bar workers? I frequent a ton of bars, and the number of bar employees in favor of a ban is approximately zero. They're all afraid that they will lose their jobs, and in some cases have already been told they will lose their jobs if the ban goes through. This is not hyperbole. I've actually asked them. Have you?

Michael Tacelosky: Indeed I have. And I've talked to wait staff all over Montgomery County and other places. People working in smokefree jurisdictions mostly LOVE the new law.

Many of the people in DC I've talked to (and trust me, I talk to everyone about this who will listen) have said that while they support the law, there's no way they can go on the record saying that they do. Why not -- because of the exact reasons that's been mentioned so frequently: "If you don't like cigarette smoke, find someplace else to work." They're afraid of losing their job. I spoke to a pregnant hostess who recognized that while she recognized the risk to her unborn child, she said the risk of being unemployed and poor was much more realistic. That's not a choice she should have to make.

Brooke Oberwetter: I'm not sure that "many of the people I've talked to" counts as a poll, but if it does, boy howdy, our numbers are through the roof!

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Drinking and driving: Actually, drinking and driving IS illegal. You cannot have open containers in your vehicle. It was recently legal to drink and drive in Montana, but that law was changed within the last year.

Also, is there a list somewhere of the smoke-free bars in DC? I would love to patronize them but I don't know where they are.

Michael Tacelosky: Halo's is the only place in DC that's licensed as a tavern (technically, there is no "bar" license in DC, you're either a restaurant, tavern or nightclub.) It's a gay bar in Logan Circle, great mojitos. It's not for everybody, though.

Blue's alley is the only smokefree nightclub in DC. It costs about $20 to get in (live music), so it's not for everybody either.

There are a handful of restaurants with bar areas: Mimi's, Busboys and Poets, Marty's in Capitol Hill, Nirvana.

Not much choice. You're better off going to Montgomery County, Bethesda and Silver Spring have lots of interesting places -- music, pool, darts, drinks, etc. All without the smoke, all frequently packed.

Brooke Oberwetter: Tac, you're being modest. SmokeFree DC took on the Herculean task of assembling a list of nearly 200 SmokeFree restaurants in DC, many of which have bars in them.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm happy with the DC Council's decision to ban smoking in restaurants and other establishments. I'm a non-smoker and have only in recent years been persuaded that its ok to ban cigs when I read the research re: second hand smoke.

How can smoke free opponents honestly argue that their bottom line is more important than the public's health?

Brooke Oberwetter: I for one am not arguing the bottom line. I'm not in the service industry.

But if I were going to argue the bottom line, I'd say that as long as there's a market demand for bars that allow smoking, it's to everyone's advantage to permit them to exist, even if in limited numbers.

I agree that there aren't enough places in DC that cater to the growing population of non-smokers, and I'd like to see what we can do--without legislation--to get a better balance. I offered Angela Bradbury of SmokeFree DC a challenge to join forces with Ban the Ban to see how many bars and restaurants we could get to go smokefree voluntarily.

Needless to say, she wasn't interested. Just one bar that allows smoking is one bar too many for these people.

Michael Tacelosky: BanTheBan doesn't need Smokefree DC's help or Angela's permission to encourage more restaurants and bars to be smokefree.

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Washington, D.C: I am a part time bartender and college student. I have my job because it's flexible and pays well so I can pay my way through school. Why should my health and my right to breathe clean air on the job be jeopardized when the lawyers, doctors and business men and women in this town are protected from secondhand smoke? Am I any less important?

Michael Tacelosky: Brooke, I'll let you answer this one. Please don't tell her to find another bartending job -- there are very, very, very few openings at smokefree bars in DC. Why should anyone have to choose between their health and their paycheck?

Brooke Oberwetter: Well, Tac, I don't think anyone should have to choose between their health and a paycheck, but that isn't what you're saying. You're saying that no one should be ALLOWED to choose between health and a paycheck, which is an altogether different (and much uglier) beast.

And as for the questioner, you've made the choice that flexibility is a priority for you. But there are a lot of college students who find jobs outside the service industry to get them through college, and they work their class schedules around it--I'm a graduate student and I'm doing that right now. And yes, it makes things tougher. But not liking your choices and having to choose anyway is a part of life and a part of growing up.

And fortunately, what little I do know about the epidemiology is that the number of years of exposure it would take for ETS to have health effects is in the decades; it shouldn't be a problem for someone who exposure is limited to four years of school.

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Columbia, Md.: Brooke,

Why is this such a big deal given that ALL the economic studies comparing sales tax data show that smoke-free air laws do not hurt restaurant business, bar business, tourism, or jobs?

Brooke Oberwetter: Well, we've yet to see what kind of economic growth could come from a reasonable compromise. I suspect that if we could find a way to cater to both groups, we'd see even more growth. For some reason, SmokeFree DC has settled on the notion that it has to be all or nothing, a one-size fits-all solution to a problem that could just as easily be solved with a little bit of ingenuity. Unfortunately, ingenuity and an unwillingness to compromise are sorely lacking in 11 out of 12 DC Council Members.

Michael Tacelosky: Studies funded by the tobacco industry show "devastating" economic loss. Every other study shows no negative economic impact.

We don't believe in compromising public health. Our government doesn't compromise on any other public health issue, and we shouldn't here either.

If all restaurants and bars are smokefree, they can compete on food, atmosphere, music, and other things.

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Arlington, Va.: Regarding Brooke's comment about avoidance -- So how do I avoid 2nd hand smoke? By not going to bars? Does that help the local business owners? I believe there are still more non-smokers than smokers and at least this one has concluded, as you seemingly suggest, that the only way to avoid smoke is to avoid bars unless I am game for a 2nd shower of the day and an unnecessary drycleaning bill.

Here's hoping that Arlington goes the same way.

Michael Tacelosky: The state law in Virginia does not allow local jurisdictions to pass stronger smokefree laws, so Arlington will not be able to do anything except encourage places to go smokefree unless the pre-emption law is changed.

I don't think we're going see a Smokefree Virginia anytime soon, but it will happen someday. Even the people in Philip Morris country are tired of paying for all the diseases caused by secondhand smoke.

Brooke Oberwetter: I'm sorry, is your concern that smoke is icky and requires a shower and the drycleaning of clothes?

I thought we were talking about public health!

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Arlington, Va.: Question for Michael: How likely do you think it is that the January 2007 implementation date can be moved up? As a huge supporter of this ban it is absurd to have to wait that long especially when you look at how quickly some MD counties have put similar laws into effect.

Michael Tacelosky: Smokefree DC's number one concern right now is with the waivers, which could be a big loophole that undermines the whole law. The delay is frustrating, because we're anxiously awaiting the opportunity to enjoy DC's nightlife, but our focus is making sure that the law is good, even if it takes a while longer to happen.

So, how likely? Adrian Fenty and others have said they'd like to see it happen faster, and may introduce amendments to that effect. We don't know if there is enough support on the council for a faster implementation to happen. If it's important to you, make sure your elected officials know! http://www.smokefree.net/dc2

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U Street: Today, Chicago also passed a smoking ban, only with the provision that: "if a restaurant bar or tavern can show it has installed air purification equipment that ensures the same air quality inside as outside, it will be granted a permanent exemption from the smoking ban."

I'm curious why a similar provision was voted down by the DC council. It would seem that if the goal is to protect the health of an establishment's employees, this equipment would accomplish that goal. But perhaps that's not the real goal here?

Michael Tacelosky: Ventilation systems do not remove the carcinogens in secondhand smoke. They remove some (but not much) of the smell, but none of them remove the stuff that causes diseases. The tobacco companies admit that, ASHRAE (the trade association that represents these systems) says that, even the companies that make the equipment say that they provide a "comfortable" environment, NOT a "safer" environment.

The restaurateurs in Howard County were duped into believing if they spent a bunch of money on these systems, they would have a safer place.

Brooke Oberwetter: I wonder, just in passing, what would happen to public support for a smoking ban if the respondents were told that there were machines that could vastly reduce the smell of smoke. I suspect it would fall fairly precipitously.

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Cleveland Park, D.C.: Why do the pro-smoking forces keep claiming that restaurant revenues will go down, when clearly that hasn't been the case in places like Massachusetts, Calif., etc., where they've passed a ban?

AND....why don't they consider the reverse: the many people that currently DON'T go to places that allow smoking, but WOULD if those places became smokefree? I'm one of them. I love to go out and spend money on dinner, but I won't go if the place allows any smoking. I'm very sensitive to smoke and I'll just never go in. So you can find me dining out in Montgomery County frequently. But if the ban passed in DC, I'd eat out closer to home all the time!

Brooke Oberwetter: I'm all for making sure that there are more options for non-smokers. I too enjoy the occasional meal without smoke and I like having options.

One of the best things about this city is its vibrant and diverse nightlife--I'm glad that all the places look different and feel different and smell different. I'm glad that I can choose a bar or restaurant based on my mood and get a totally different experience.

I'm glad that I can have French food at Bistro du Coin and smoke a cigarette and enjoy the meal. I like it that at Radius in Mt. Pleasant, I can go out with my friends who have kids and get a slice of pizza without worrying about the smoke. I'm glad that down the street at the Raven I can drink beer from a bottle while slipping quarters in the jukebox and that the place looks blue through the smokey haze. I like it that at Mimi's I can get opera and wine and not worry about what the smoke is doing to the waiters' voices.

Those are authentic American experiences and I want to be able to choose among them. You want to take away my right to spend my money in ways that make me happy that don't harm anyone who hasn't chosen to be harmed.

Michael Tacelosky: I'm all for a diverse nightlife, too. However, my definition of diversity doesn't include secondhand smoke, which causes diseases for the patrons and workers.

I can't wait until DC is more like San Francisco, Boston and New York -- a vibrant nightlife without the toxins.

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Washington, D.C.: What happened to Mayor Williams? Earlier this year City Administrator Robert Bobb testified on behalf of the mayor in support of the smoke-free workplaces legislation. So I was quite surprised to open this morning's Post and read that the mayor is "undecided" about whether he would sign the bill. What gives?

washingtonpost.com: D.C. Inches A Step Closer To Becoming Smoke-Free (Post, Dec. 7)

Michael Tacelosky: Mayor Williams has consistently said he wants to see some establishments continue to allow smoking. I'm very concerned that the waiver provision will give him a loophole that allows that.

That being said, I don't think he will veto a strong bill that's presented to him. He might not sign it, but I don't think he'll veto it. That's why Smokefree DC is advocating for the strongest bill possible to be given to him -- tight or no waivers, and a fast implementation date.

Brooke Oberwetter: Right. One bar that allows folks to relax at the end of the day with a beer and a cigarette is one bar too many.

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Brooke Oberwetter: Well, this was fun. Sort of like banging my head against a wall, but fun nonetheless. Smoke 'em while you still can, I guess.

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Michael Tacelosky: Thanks, everyone, for your questions and interest in this important issue. If you're still undecided, I encourage you to do a field trip. Go to Montgomery County, or even New York City, and do a pub crawl. Ask patrons, owners and workers what they think of the new smokefree law, and if they'd support overturning it to allow smoking again.

If you'd like to help us pass a smokefree law, visit our Web site (www.smokefreedc.org) and click on Contact Us to get involved.

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