Last week, the D.C. Council gave preliminary approval to a smoking restriction bill, but ignited no celebrations among nonsmoking advocates.
Revisions by the council Committee on Public Works had undermined much of the original intent of the bill, which was introduced last spring by Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At Large). Mason and John Ray (D-At Large) are working this week on amendments to fortify the measure -- and perhaps restore some of its limits on smoking in the work place -- before the council's final vote on Tuesday.
Mason's original bill would have forbidden smoking in offices, employee lounges, restrooms, hallways, restaurants, nightclubs and warehouses. The bill would have permitted smoking areas, if they were equipped with "ventilation and barriers" to contain smoke.
Under the version promulgated by the public works committee, smoking is banned in taxis and regulated in restaurants, which must designate 25 percent of their seats as nonsmoking. New or renovated eateries would have a 50 percent nonsmoking portion. Requirements for ventilation and barriers have been stricken. Bar and lounge areas in restaurants are exempt, as are taverns and nightclubs.
Current District law bans smoking in elevators, city buildings, schools and health care facilities. But throughout the United States in recent years, smoking disputes and reports of health risks to nonsmokers have generated hundreds of much stricter laws.
At the Jan. 5 council meeting, the changes drew lively response from Ray. "The bill that came out of committee in fact gutted the law, and I believe we must go further," Ray said then.
"If we're going to ban smoking, we ought to ban smoking," Ray said, adding that there is "no question anymore" of the harm done to nonsmokers by cigarettes.
Though he predicted enforcement difficulties in a stronger law, John Wilson (D-Ward 2) agreed with Ray that the committee's bill was "a political mishmash."
Virginia Kennedy, vice chairwoman of the D.C. Interagency Council on Smoking, a nonsmoking coalition, said this week in a phone interview that "political realities" precluded passage of all provisions of the original bill. Indeed, the report by the public works committee on the bill seemed an effort to appease both the business and health interests.
One section notes that "Some of the District's most beautiful bars, which may have been designated as an historical landmark, would be physically ruined by any requirement that a barrier be constructed."
Another notes, "According to a survey conducted in 1985 by the Commission on Public Health, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control, only 26 percent of District residents smoke. Therefore, a requirement that only 25 percent of the total seating capacity of each District restaurant be nonsmoking is not unreasonable in light of the statistics."
Kennedy said she hopes Mason and Ray will formulate amendments giving some consideration to working nonsmokers.
"In restaurants, you can sort of pick and choose. In a work place, you can't always pick and choose if you can go to work every day," Kennedy said.
Kennedy also said that the spirit behind the legislation "is not smokers versus nonsmokers . . . . It's just trying to give equal protection to nonsmokers.
"We emphasize the health consequences," Kennedy said. "The statistics shouldn't be ignored by elected officials in this city."
But Brennan Moran, spokeswoman of the Tobacco Institute, disputed the contention of U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop that secondhand smoking poses a health threat, saying, "What you're really dealing with is perhaps an irritant in certain situations."
Moran also said this week that "We are still very much opposed to the city council intervening in this area." Restaurateurs and employers will accede to the policy preferences of workers and patrons, Moran said, because "employees and customers are just too valuable to smart business people."
Tom Rouland, executive vice president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said that the organization accepts the concept of legal requirements for nonsmoking areas, but objects to fixed percentages of seats.
"The restaurant is certainly going to do what the patrons want," Rouland said.