Legislation that would ban smoking in all District bars and restaurants by January 2007 was approved yesterday by the D.C. Council's Health Committee.
The committee's action means that the full council could vote on the measure as soon as December. Smoking ban legislation has been stalled in committee for two years, but proponents say a council majority now favors some form of a ban.
"It's very good,'' said Angela Bradbery, co-founder of Smokefree DC, a nonprofit group that is pushing to change the District's smoking law. "I'd like it to happen sooner, but it would make bars and restaurants smoke-free.''
The bill, which is similar to a ban in New York City, would make exemptions for outdoor areas, cigar bars, hotel rooms, retail tobacco outlets and facilities that research the effects of smoking.
The bill also would provide for an economic-hardship waiver for businesses that can demonstrate a "significant, negative impact.''
The measure would make all restaurant eating areas smoke-free at the time of enactment, but would give bars, clubs, taverns and the bar areas of restaurants until 2007 to go smoke-free.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), the chairman of the health panel, said bar and restaurant owners need time to develop outdoor seating areas. The city's health department, which would enforce the ban, also needs time to prepare.
Smoking ban opponents say the bill would hurt the city's thriving hospitality industry and encourage smokers to patronize Virginia businesses.
"This is a total smoke-free bill, not a compromise that would balance the various interests I had hoped for,'' said council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).
Schwartz is chairman of the council's Public Works and Environment Committee, where smoking ban measures have been stalled for the past two years. Recently, Schwartz tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a compromise. This year, ban proponents crafted a bill so that it could be referred to Catania's committee.
Schwartz said the economic hardship waiver is vague and gives the mayor the sole power to grant a waiver.
"It would very much depend who is mayor,'' Schwartz said. "If I was mayor -- and I'm not running, by the way -- I would exempt everybody because I think there will be hardships. Others would give no waivers.''
Vince Morris, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said the mayor would prefer a measure that allows some exemptions. He said the bill approved yesterday was a ''good start.''
The Health Committee approved the measure 3 to 0, with Catania and council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) voting in favor.
Catania, who was not counted as a ban supporter earlier in the year, said he thinks the hardship waiver is a good way to limit unintended consequences. But he said he expected it to be used rarely.
"In the long run, I think it will be good for consumers, workers and in the economic interest of our businesses,'' Catania said, noting that other local jurisdictions are also interested in passing smoking bans.
The smoking ban issue is also playing a role in the mayoral race. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) was one of the original sponsors of the bill. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said they now support some sort of ban.