January 4, 2006

Washington D.C. Bans Smoking in Bars, Restaurants

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON -- Washington D.C.'s city council on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to ban smoking in the U.S. capital's bars, restaurants and other workplaces, with portions of the ban expected to take effect as early as this spring.

Modeled after a similar smoking ban New York City launched in 2003, the District of Columbia measure will ban smoking in all restaurant and bar dining areas and other workplaces upon expiration of a congressional review period of 30 legislative days.

But the smoking ban would not take effect in indoor bar areas of restaurants and in taverns, brew pubs, clubs and nightclubs until January 1, 2007. The measure will allow smoking on outdoor patio areas.

"It's a wonderful first step. They're acknowledging secondhand smoke is a health problem," said Katja Fort, who said she left her job as a liquor sales manager in June after exposure to smoky bars exacerbated her lung illness.

With Wednesday's vote, Washington joins a growing list of jurisdictions with full workplace smoking bans, including New York, California, Connecticut and seven other U.S. states, as well as Ireland, Norway, and Sweden.

After hours of heated of debate over amendments, the council approved the ban by a veto-proof majority of 11-1 with one member absent, after a preliminary 12-1 vote in December.

Mayor Anthony Williams said, however, that he may still veto the bill to make a point because he believes it will harm local bars and restaurants that would lose patrons to adjacent Virginia which does not have a smoking ban. Nearby counties in Maryland already ban smoking in most bars and restaurants.

The 13-member council needs a two-thirds majority of nine votes to override a veto.

"People will stay home or go where they can smoke," said Carol Schwartz, the council's lone Republican, who cast the only vote against the measure. "Our competition is a five minute Metro ride away."

The council added amendments to the bill which expanded exemptions to hookah bars, where patrons smoke flavored tobacco in Middle Eastern-style water pipes, and to taverns, clubs, nightclubs and brew-pubs that generate at least 10 percent of their revenues from on-site tobacco sales.

Angela Bradbery, a co-founder of Smokefree DC, a group advocating the ban, said the amendment could open a loophole for an establishment to push tobacco sales to maintain its smoking status, but she added that the 10 percent tobacco sales threshold would be too high for most bars and restaurants to achieve.

Nightclub promoter Mark Lee said the ban would hit the city's clubs hard because nearly half of their customers smoke regularly or occasionally. "The pain will be deep, significant and long-lasting," he said.

The measure, however, includes a provision for the city's mayor to grant an economic hardship waiver to establishments that can prove the ban has resulted in an as-yet-unspecified loss of revenue.