Transcript

D.C. Smoking Ban

Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006; 1:00 PM

The D.C. Council today approved a broad ban on smoking in District bars and restaurants. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has threatened to veto the bill, but supporters have more than enough votes to override a veto, Washington Post staff writer Eric M. Weiss reports ( Read More ).

The ban, which passed by a vote of 11-1, is modeled closely on similar restrictions in New York City. The District ban would first apply to all restaurant dining rooms upon enactment and then extend to bars, nightclubs and taverns in January 2007.

Weiss was online Thursday, Jan. 5, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about the D.C. Council's approval Wednesday of the ban.

The Transcript Follows.

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Eric M. Weiss: Smokers, non-smokers, friends, neighbors, fellow countrymen: Now is the time to opine and inquire about the District's smoking ban. As you all know, the D.C. Council passed a bill yesterday that would make all restaurant dining rooms smokefree upon enactment, and then make all bars and restaurants smoke-free by next January. The wildcard is Mayor Tony Williams, who, as I write this, is considering whether to veto.

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Springfield, Va.: What is the restaurant/bar owner's roll with enforcing the no smoking policy. If a patron lights up, is a no smoking bouncer supposed to confront the smoker and force them to put it out or leave?

Eric M. Weiss: The penalty for a bar owner is $500 for each day it is in violation. For customers, if you light up illegally, it will cost you a fine of between $100 and $1,000 for the first offense and between $200 and $1,000 for each incidence after that.

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Washington, D.C.: Upfront, I'll admit that I'm one of those people that supports the ban. But I'm also one of those people that dumps a lot of money on DC bars, and I'll probably be doing more of that if the ban holds up.

Several other cities have already passed a ban, and it's been long enough that they should have some idea of its economic impact on the restaurant/bar industry. Is there any hard economic data to support the ban's opponents' claim that this will hurt the service industry's profits?

Eric M. Weiss: Both sides have stacks of data that they claim either proves that the smoking ban does not harm businesses or will turn Adams Morgan into a morgue. But fears have been reduced because the sky has not fallen in New York, Boston and the other major cities that have passed bans.

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Chevy Chase, D.C.: I don't understand why non-smokers feel they have the right to have every single establishment cater to their needs. There are hundreds of smoke-free bars and restaurants in this city already. I am a social smoker and like to smoke when I am at a bar having a drink. Should this really be illegal? I think this is an example of the majority stomping on the individual rights of others'.

Eric M. Weiss: That is one of the main arguments used by ban opponents, who say government is trying to create a "nanny state.''

But supporters have successfully positioned the ban as a worker health issue, and said it should be treated like any other workplace hazard like asbestos or a broken ladder.

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Alexandria, Va.: Eric, I lived in California for several years, and I don't get why people here are so upset over the smoking ban. In CA, the system works and it's simple: you walk outside or into a designated area to smoke, then when you're done, you go right back to wherever you were. While it may be a little inconvenient for smokers to make that 10 step trek to the front/back door or designated area for two minutes, the benefits for non-smokers not being bombarded by secondhand smoke, smelling like a chimney, and not having to get up and move away when faced with a wall of smoke are positive.

People who say, "We will lose revenue" or "It will kill us", simply don't get it: people are going to smoke no matter what you do or where you go, it's just a matter of where they have to go to do that. If a smoker can't spend two minutes outside an establishment or in a designated area while they are smoking, then go back inside or to their chair, it would seem to be a comment on how lazy people have become.

Eric M. Weiss: I take it from your reply that you are a non-smoker. Part of the joy of smoking is hanging out with friends at a bar smoking and drinking, smokers say. It is a buzz kill to excuse yourself, put on your coat and walk outside to feed your habit, huddling in a doorway or an alley like a criminal.

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Washington, D.C.: I know that bar/restaurant owners claim that this will kill their businesses, but I wonder on what that claim is based? Current business? If it is, I'd think that impression is skewed. As a non-smoker who hates smoke in my face, hair, and clothes (has asthma, too), I can tell you that because of the smoke, there are at least two prominent steak houses in town that we love but to which we never take clients anymore because of the smoke. (These establishments will tell you about their fancy exhaust systems at the bar, but they never really work.) And socially, there are any number of billiards, bars, and restaurants that we've left early or simply walked away from b/c the noxious haze was so overwhelming. With the ban, we'll have the opportunity to go out more - to spend more... something that we haven't bothered to do because of the cigarettes and cigars that ruin our evenings.

Eric M. Weiss: Your comment is sure to warm the hearts -- and pocketbooks-- of District restaurant and bar owners, who are honestly worried.

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Georgetown, D.C.: I am very excited to hear the news that DC will be added to the growing list of smokefree cities/states! My biggest concern about DC's particular ban is the potential loophole crafted in the language of "significant hardship waiver." Please explain this exemption and how an establishment will need to prove that the smoking ban (in and of itself) has caused them to lose business. This sounds like nothing more than an enormous loop hole to me. Also, why has no other major city or state felt the need to include such exemption? Thanks!!

Eric M. Weiss: The bill allows the mayor to grant a hardship waiver if the applicant shows that the ban "has caused or will cause undue financial hardship.''

Critics say that is too vague and would leave it up to the mayor. Ban proponents tried to tighten it up, but an amendment was defeated. The bill's author, council member David Catania, said New York City has a similar waiver system that has rarely been used.

Even if a waiver is granted, smoking would only be allowed in 25 percent of the space under the District proposal.

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Washington, D.C.: Today's story on the smoking ban is too reliant on unverified quotes from restaurant owners. For example, you can't smoke in the dining room at Chef Geoff's (New Mexico Ave.), but you are still exposed to the smoke from the adjoining bar. So it is not the smoke-free dining experience implied by the quote from Geoff Tracy.

washingtonpost.com: D.C. Smoking Ban Approved ( Post, Jan. 5 )

Eric M. Weiss: Based on interviews and hearing testimony, it appears that many, if not most, restaurant dining areas in the city are already smoke-free.

Ban proponents agree with you that if smoking is allowed at the bar it will affect someone chowing down just a few feet away.

They use the indelicate analogy of a swimming pool: it doesn't work to label half the pool a "pee-free zone."

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Rosslyn, Va.: A few of the restaurants I go to in DC have smoking sections in the front of the restaurant. I assume that when this legislation goes into effect those smoking sections will disappear or will move to the area immediately around the restaurant bar. Is this correct? When exactly will the law take effect? BTW, I'm a supporter of the ban and wish they could do the same in Arlington and Alexandria.

Eric M. Weiss: Because the District is a strange political animal, it is hard to predict when the law will go into effect. The mayor has 10 days after he receives the bill to either sign or veto it. If the bill is signed by the mayor or the veto is overridden, it must go to Congress for a review period of 30 "legislative days.'' A legislative day is one during which one or both houses of Congress is in session. And with all the recesses, weekends, etc., it is difficult to predict when it will go into effect.

And that is assuming Congress does not veto the act.

Upon enactment, workplaces and dining areas of restaurants will go smoke-free. Then next January the rest of the bars and restaurants will do the same.

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Washington, D.C.: Why do you think the vote was so largely in favor of the ban?

Eric M. Weiss: Hmm. Good question. The short answer is that there are more non-smoking voters than smoking voters. Supporters and opponents say the lobbying effort by the smoke-free groups was effective. The effort by the restaurant and bar industry was not. Also, council members feel, based on their interaction with their constituents, that it is a political plus to support the ban during this local campaign year.

However, some of the votes on the weakening amendments was much closer than 11-1, meaning there could have been four or five votes for a "compromise'' bill.

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Re: Fines: So the restaurant/bar manager has a patron who starts smoking, they call the DC police. Meanwhile 2 hours later when they show up, the smoker has already left, but someone complains about the smoker and the bar is fined????

Eric M. Weiss: I believe the varmint has to be caught "butt-handed.''

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Ward 3. Washington, D.C.: What I do not understand is how this is not in clear violation of the economic design of our nation. The U.S. has a modified Free-Market economy. Our country is set up with democracy and capitalism. My feeling is that if smoke free bars are so in vogue, then the market will demand it, people will flock to it, it will be cool, and the smoking bard will go out of business. Why haven't more entrepreneurs created smoke free establishments? Because the market does not demand it. This is forcing our hand. Yes, those who say that it will not hurt the economy are correct. But that is not the point. Do we really want the government telling us what is acceptable and not acceptable in this realm? It frightens me that we have given them the power to do this. This is another step towards totalitarianism, and away from capitalism.

Eric M. Weiss: Dear Adam Smith: You are in agreement with ban opponents who believe that if a ban is so popular, the invisible hand of the marketplace will enforce the popular will and bars will eventually go smoke-free. After all, when was the last time you saw a spitoon?

Then again, smoking ban proponents say the rights of people not to inhale dangerous carcinogens outweights the rights of people to light up a Newport.

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Anonymous: What would be so wrong with requiring a TOBACCO LICENSE, as is done with alcohol, which is the other major (legal) health hazard. I understand that many people hate the smell of smoking and don't care whether or not this law might set a bad precedent. I neither smoke, nor enjoy smelling it when I eat, but if I go to a pool hall or bar of that nature, I expect to smell smoke and accept that "risk" (personally I think air quality in DC is probably just as bad). By requiring a license, establishments who want to pay to allow smoking can, and as always, those who do not want to harm themselves or smell smoky, can go to the many establishments that will not allow it.

Eric M. Weiss: Why is everyone picking on pool halls? One reason that a ban can work politically is that it affects every bar equally. What business owners don't want is the bar next door allowing smokers while they can't.

In fact, one of the biggest fears is that smokers will hop on the Orange Line to Virginia, where bars are likely to stay smoky for a long, long time.

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Washington, D.C.: Entire weeks go by without my seeing a cigarette but every day I'm almost killed by SUVs and buses speeding through every crosswalk and walk signal. Plus, vehicle exhaust (and power plants) are the leading cause of air pollution. If people really cared about public health and safety, an SUV free DC would be the target. These smoking bans are just stupid bigotry.

Eric M. Weiss: A possible SUV ban? You read it here first, folks.

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Washington, D.C.: Why doesn't America ban tobacco all together?

Eric M. Weiss: Uh, I think we tried that with alcohol and it didn't work too well. Remember Elliot Ness?

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Baltimore, Md.: Congrats to DC! Here's to seriously hoping that Baltimore is next. Anyway, my question is this, what's the deal with the hardship exemption? How can it be proven? Doesn't DC think that places will take advantage of it?

Also, by telling places that they are exempt if they have more than 10% of sales from tobacco, would likely push more places to sell more tobacco to be exempt. Right?

I will definitely be making the trip to patronize DC bars over Baltimore bars once they DC is smokefree!

Eric M. Weiss: Thank you for being such a close reader, Baltimore.

First, the details of the hardship waiver will be included in regulations that will be published later this year. But the mayor will have the final word.

Second, ban supporters were very worried that the 10 percent rule will encourage the sale of tobacco, as bars try to make it past the 10 percent revenue threshold and gain an exemption. Council members imagined bars selling below-cost cigarettes or mandating a two drink and a pack of smokes minimum.

After all, people are clever.

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Dupont, Washington, D.C.: Nobody even talks about the smoking ban in NY anymore, and it is much colder in the winter there for smokers to stand outside!

The ban is just something that people will get used to. It's hard to believe that there used to be smoking in airplanes, but that has been outlawed for so long that nobody complains about that anymore.

Eric M. Weiss: Last year I visited Dublin, which has a smoking ban. Pubs there converted alleys to smoking areas or had folks gathered in groups out front. And it can be pretty dreary there.

But those of you who smoke or have smoked know that there is no limit to what a smoker will tolerate for a puff.

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Fairfax, Va.: Can any of the ban opponents please point me in the direction of a smoke-free bar in DC? I have yet to see one.

Eric M. Weiss: Try www.smokefreedc.org, they keep a list of smokefree DC bars and restaurants.

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Washington, D.C.: How likely is it that Congress would overturn the ban?

Eric M. Weiss: I do not have a crystal ball. However, a congressional veto of DC legislation is quite rare. Ban supporters have not cited that as a worry.

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Arlington, Va.: People talk about Boston, California and NYC and that it hasn't had an ill affect on business there. These places didn't have easy a five minute metro over the bridge to Arlington and Alexandria. People are comparing apples to apples. It will hurt DC. Also, why not ban drinking while we're at it. Drinking kills people all the time. It's just because drinking is more socially acceptable. This whole smoking thing is garbage. We might as well ban SUV's too.

Eric M. Weiss: Another vote for an SUV ban!

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Boston, Mass.: The sky hasn't fallen, but no one is any healthier in Boston. Now everyone crowds around the door smoking in the freezing cold. The bar tenders get mad cause people skip out on their tabs and the street looks like an ash tray. These smoking bans are a waste of time.

Eric M. Weiss: Smokers crowding outside on the sidewalk is a phenomenon that seems to accompany smoking bans. It was also a big concern for council member Jim Graham, who represents Adams Morgan and U Street. In the end, he decided that the health issues were more important and voted for the ban. We will see.

P.S. Anyone who has walked on 18th Street NW on a weekend knows there isn't any room on the sidewalk anyway.

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smoke-free bar in DC: Saint Ex. Funny how this snark comes from a Virginian. Hey, can I go and hassle you for your state's stupid laws, and hatred of Metro? Addiction to SUVs?

Oh, that's right...we in DC are supposed to just shut up and cater to the burbs. Want some more of my money for that baseball rip-off?

Eric M. Weiss: Hey, this is a forum about smoking, not SUVs!

And I believe Saint Ex prohibits smoking during dinner service.

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Georgetown, D.C.: I too applaud the City Council for the votes. I go out 2-3 nights a week, but rarely stay at a bar for more than an hour because of the smoking. When I go to a smokeless establishment, I end up staying longer (and spending more money!).

I travel a lot for work, and other cities seem to be doing just fine with bans. The sky has not fallen in Boston, NYC, or LA -- despite the warnings of the Chicken Littles.

Eric M. Weiss: Smoke-free advocates say non-smokers will patronize non-smoking bars and restaurants more frequently. Opponents say if that were true, market forces would have already pushed bars and restaurants to go smoke-free.

If it appears that smoking bans have not destroyed the hospitality industries in New York, Boston, etc., it also appears that it hasn't caused a huge increase in business either.

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Your reply to Adam Smith: You totally miss the point. Of course people have a "right" to not inhale smoke. They can freely exercise that right by not going to smoking establishments, or working at them. What the ban proponents want is the "right" to have every single establishment exactly the way they like it. Should vegetarians have the "right" to be able to enter any restaurant and not smell meat? The ban's arguments are so preposterous I really think you go along with them too easily.

Eric M. Weiss: My editor often accuses me of missing the point. But smoke-free proponents say that second-hand smoke is dangerous to others and people shouldn't be allowed to endanger people in public places. That's why you wouldn't be allowed to play with a ball of mercury inside Tysons Galleria.

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What's a cigar bar?: I see there is an exemption for such places, but I don't know what the definition is. As an occasional cigar smoker whose wife doesn't want it in the house (with good reason even if I wasn't married, I wouldn't want it in there either) I curious as to that exemption.

Eric M. Weiss: The council voted to exempt cigar bars, hookah bars and any other facility that gets 10 percent or more of their annual revenue from tobacco sales, excluding cigarette machines. The argument was that smoking is incidental to eating at restaurants and drinking at bars. For cigar and hookah bars, smoking is the central activity.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm just wondering when we will have something like a 25 percent tax on pizza delivery or on fast food because it is deemed unhealthy for us by someone else. After all obesity and heart disease are two of our biggest health issues, so if we put a huge tax on those items it will effect the people who consume them instead of all of us who eat healthy and exercise having to pay more for health care.

Like or dislike smoke, but the big brother slippery slope effect here is what is really scary.

Eric M. Weiss: Imagine if that pepperoni pizza was delivered in an SUV!

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D, Washington, D.C.: smokers left clammy with fear out of losing their 'minority rights', or claiming we should ban everything else relatively harmful to humankind are just spitting out reactionary barbs, not looking at the big picture. Bartenders, waitstaff, bouncers, etc., are working stiffs just like the rest of us, and in terms of sheer numbers, are part of an even smaller 'minority' than smokers. The particular industry they are a part of isn't exactly known for its profitability or depth of healthcare coverage. Don't these workers deserve some sort of equal protection? Unions, OSHA regulations (which for the most part protect the rest of us) and whathaveyou do exist for a reason, after all. All of this whining is quasi-classist conjecture from lazy sods who can't stand being told no. Come off it!

Eric M. Weiss: Ban opponents say smoke-free advocates are just using the issue of employee health while their real agenda has more to do with prohibiting others from doing something they feel is disgusting and makes their sweaters stink.

Ban advocates say all workers deserve to have a workplace free from carcinogens.

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To the Pizza Guy: You eating a pizza does not get me fat.

Eric M. Weiss: Good point.

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Foggy Bottom (no longer foggy after the ban): Who are those so-called "smoke-free" interest groups? How did they become so powerful that they can defeat the bar/restaurant lobby group, whom I suppose is well-funded and well-organized? Where they got the money from? Are we talking about the Sierra Club-ish organizations? And if they are so successful at banning smoking in several cities with entrenched bar/restaurant group, why aren't we seeing more environmental friendly legislations being passed?

Eric M. Weiss: A lobbyist is most effective when the issue they are pushing is actually popular with voters. That goes a long way. As for the groups, they include SmokeFree DC, the American Cancer Society, etc.

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Eric M. Weiss: Ok folks, our time is up. Thanks for the good questions. Now I have to take off--in my SUV.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you for your questions. Now you can continue the conversation by talking amongst yourselves ...

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