Smoke to clear from district bars Jan. 2

13 years ago by in Uncategorized Tagged:

Story by Andrew Knapp

Observer photo by Andrew Knapp
“A framed vintage sign hangs from a wooden stanchion among pool tables at Buffalo Billiards. On Jan. 2, the highest of the four activities the sign supposedly prohibits will be illegal. ”

WASHINGTON – Billiard balls cracked against each other as Patrick Smith scurried around the bar, serving drinks and periodically glancing at a baseball game on the nearby big-screen television. Faint tobacco smoke wafted through the air as a tall, black-haired woman puffing on a cigarette ordered a Bud Light.

The bartender at Buffalo Billiards, a pool-hall bar and eatery in Washington’s Dupont Circle, poured the drink from the tap, then snapped open a bottle of Corona for another customer. As the only bartender on staff one Saturday afternoon, Smith said he hardly had time to breathe – he was too busy.

But the lunch crowd lulled. He snagged a break and plopped himself onto a barstool, his head craning upward at the Boston Red Sox game. He cracked a smile when his favorite team’s slugger hit a home run, then lit a cigarette and smoked it calmly.

“We aren’t supposed to be smoking during work,” he said later, twisting the butt into an ashtray and extinguishing it.

Company policy, he said, forbids smoking on the job.

On Jan. 2, however, he won’t just be breaking the rules; he’ll be breaking the law, which will forbid smoking at most bars and restaurants in the district. The blanket ban in bars will come months after the first regulation outlawed smoking in restaurant dining areas on April 3. But exactly how widely the law will apply remains in doubt.

City Council members approved a broad outline for the anti-smoking law in January but asked Mayor Anthony Williams to draft specific implementation guidelines. The council provided exceptions for tobacco bars, open-air dining areas and businesses that can prove the ban “has caused or will cause undue financial hardship,” according to the regulation. It didn’t specify exact criteria, however.

Public health groups and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington met with Williams in July to discuss the policy and suggest alternatives. The mayor’s decision will be released within the next few weeks when a 60-day council approval process will get under way, mayoral spokesman Vince Morris said. Williams is cautiously approaching the ban while balancing economic concerns with workers’ rights to shield themselves from secondhand smoke, Morris said.

“The restaurant business and tourism is a big part of the economy here,” he said. “We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. We need to be careful not to hurt the small guy’s restaurant or the bartender who works there.”

Williams, who threatened to veto the measure, was one of two city officials who resisted the ban because of its potential harm to the district’s hospitality industry. Smoking-ban proponents expressed worries recently that the mayor’s exemption opportunities will significantly weaken the regulation.

“We’re quite worried that the mayor might undermine this and make it easier for people to get waivers,” said Angela Bradbery, co-founder of Smokefree DC, a grass-roots organization formed in 2002 to back the ban.

The D.C. Department of Health recommended guidelines for restaurants to qualify for a waiver, and the mayor is considering them. Williams must strike a compromise between the health department and competing interests from the restaurant association, which fears the ban’s harsh economic implications will trigger business closures, Morris said.

Geoff Tracy, a member of the association’s board of directors and owner of two Chef Geoff’s eateries in the district, said lawmakers shouldn’t be toying with the business he has worked so hard to establish.

“I believe that government, especially the D.C. Council, is attempting to create a city of perpetual regulation,” he said. “They pass laws to justify their own job, frequently at the detriment to the good of the people.”

Despite his opposition to the ban, Tracy said he won’t file an economic waiver application, however, and looks forward to discarding ashtrays and “not having to deal with ventilation.”

Radley Balko, a policy analyst at nonprofit research foundation Cato Institute in Washington, echoed those economic concerns and testified to the council as it pondered the legislation last summer. Patrons will travel to northern Virginia to smoke while they drink or eat, he said.

“Chains absorb the loss, but it’s the mom and pop places that give the community color that will get hit the hardest,” Balko said.

Nonscientific studies conducted in states nationwide haven’t verified the economic detriments of smoking ordinances.

Bans implemented in 2003 in Maryland’s Montgomery County forced the closure of a Gaithersburg location of Buffalo Billiards a year later when business slumped about 15 percent, said Jeff Dawson, co-owner of Washington-based Bedrock Management, which owns five bars in the district including Buffalo Billiards.

About 40 percent of Buffalo Billiards customers are smokers and will be forced to either step outside or stop visiting the business altogether, Dawson said. Smokers loitering, littering and yelling outside bars will exacerbate noise problems that some city sections – like the tavern-heavy Adams Morgan – are experiencing.

Dawson didn’t actively combat the ban but said he might become more fervent if revenues start tumbling. If that happens, he plans to file for an economic waiver.

“The blanket-ban approach is OK,” Dawson said, admitting smoking bans are inevitable in most communities. “But if it creates a backlash, the city might have to re-examine the ban.”

Health-centric arguments for smoking bans have typically taken a back seat to the economic issue, according to Bradbery.

U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona said in late June the health effects of secondhand smoke were “more pervasive than we previously thought.” Chances of being diagnosed with lung cancer were 20 percent to 30 percent higher. Scientific studies to prove the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, however, have not been conducted, so Balko said it’s up to customers to make that decision.

“Everything is voluntary,” the policy analyst said. “You know when you walk into a business that smoking is allowed. Whether secondhand smoke is actually dangerous is up for debate.”

In the district, about 290 people died from lung cancer in 2005, American Cancer Society representatives said. About 20 percent of district residents smoke.

Most bar and restaurant workers are low-income earners who can’t afford health care, said Donald Zeigler, deputy director of the American Medical Association’s Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse. Arguments that bans limit business owners’ freedom and impose government control are unfounded, Zeigler said.

“Using that ethic, the government couldn’t require restaurant workers to wash their hands, clean the floors or exterminate rats,” he said. “We need to protect these workers.”

Efforts to ban smoking begin in small communities, Zeigler added, and culminate at a statewide level. A nationwide ban will never happen “especially with this administration,” he said, referring to President Bush.

Eleven states and about 1,000 municipalities nationwide have comprehensive anti-smoking laws. About 123 restaurants in the district have already gone completely smoke free, according to the Smokefree D.C. Web site.

Before the ban reaches all restaurant and taverns in January, some patrons are exploiting the last months they’ll be permitted to smoke at their favorite watering hole.

A group of friends – mostly smokers – formed a semi-circle next to the bar at Town Hall restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue N.W. one recent Thursday night. After finishing a cigarette, Charles snatched one of three tan-colored packs of Marlboros scattered across the bar and lit another. The 39-year-old from Georgetown refused to give his last name because “I don’t want my parents to know I smoke,” he said.

Charles said the smoking ban would be justified if it aimed solely to protect children from secondhand smoke. As a method to safeguard bartenders and wait staff, however, the ban is “just the government telling us what to do,” he said.

“Smoking is a work hazard; it’s a hazard you accept when you come to work here,” he said. “If kids are eating next to me in a restaurant, I’ll put it out.”

“But this is bar time; it’s adult time,” Charles said, pointing at the mug of foamy beer he held in his right hand. “I don’t mind if they ban smoking at Chuck E. Cheese’s.”

Charles’ friend, Scott Green, 36, of Arlington, Va., the only nonsmoker in the group, argued with the avid smoker.

“I like the idea of going home and my clothes not smelling like I smoke,” Green said.

Customers who smoke illegally after the ban’s enactment can be fined $100-$1,000 for the first offense and $200-$1,000 for the second. For failing to post “no smoking” signs or neglecting to inform customers of offending behavior, businesses will face $500 in fines for each day of violation.

At Buffalo Billiards, the bartender said some co-workers are happy about the approaching ban, but most don’t care. He adjusted his backward Red Sox cap and served another beer.

“People won’t be affected too much,” Smith said.

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