Students asking for an ashtray at a local hangout may be told to take their cigarettes outside in the near future, as a smoke-free restaurant and bar campaign gains momentum in the District.
More than 200 restaurants and bars have declared themselves smoke- free, many in the past year with the help of Smokefree D.C., an organization working to create a healthy environment for employees in the thousands of eating and drinking establishments throughout the city.
Angela Bredbury, cofounder of Smokefree D.C., said she started the movement in January after reading about the successful effort to ban smoking from most public places, including restaurants and bars, in New York City.
Members of Smokefree D.C. ask business owners to sign a petition declaring their establishment to be smoke-free, Bredbury said.
“We’re trying to kind of just spread the word right know,” said Bredbury, who hopes her organization’s grassroots tactics will eventually pave the way for legislation outlawing smoking in all restaurants and bars.
Smokefree D.C. also reaches out to bartenders, waitresses and busboys, many of whom are constantly exposed to secondhand smoke when they work.
Mike Ferns, a bartender at Apex, a gay nightclub in Dupont Circle, said two years of serving drinks has taken a toll on his lungs.
“It’s taking my right to be healthy, to breathe clean air,” he said.
The smoke-free campaign has also seen a lot of support on the college level, even from smokers, said junior Vanessa Maltin, a Smokefree D.C. volunteer.
“We don’t try and tell them that we want them to quit,” Maltin said. “They should just realize that they don’t have to smoke around us.”
The movement, while only in its infant stages, has already gotten the attention of city officials, who said recent events in New York City and California – where smoking in all public places is prohibited – have lent credibility to smoke-free activists.
Brian Boyer, director of communications for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said the city has not taken an official stance on the issue but would be circulating surveys to residents and business owners in the coming months in order to gauge public opinion.
Boyer said the city would also be looking at how businesses in New York and California have been affected economically by their smoking bans.
Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of NYC and Company, which represents 2,500 restaurants, bars and clubs in the five boroughs, said most bars and clubs have been reporting double-digit drops in business, while most restaurants have emerged unscathed from the new regulation.
“We’ve fought the thing all along because businesses would be hurt by this,” he said.
Hunt dismissed accusations that restaurant and bars owners don’t care about their employees.
“We do care about our employees’ welfare, but we also care about their right to make a living,” said Hunt, noting that many waitresses and bartenders are receiving less tips and in some cases have lost their jobs because of the drop in business.
“You’re not advocating smoking … you’re advocating serving people who choose to smoke,” he added.
Several Foggy Bottom and Georgetown-area restaurants have banned smoking and have not seen a drop in business.
Kris Ross, a manager at Blues Alley, a jazz club on Wisconsin Avenue that has been smoke-free since April, said the ban was instituted at the behest of the restaurant’s patrons.
“We’ve seen more positive than negative feedback,” said Ross, a one-pack-a-day smoker.
Jose Rios, the manager of Aroma, an Indian restaurant, said his customers have become accustomed to the smoking ban, which has been in place since 1994.
Opposing the ban are many business owners who said it would alienate many of their customers and smokers, who contend that smoking in restaurants and bars is a constitutional right.
Paul Lusty, owner of Lucky Bar, a self-styled “hardcore” Irish bar on Connecticut Avenue, said people would always want a cigarette with a beer.
“Of course I’m concerned about my health … if I had a preference, I’d sit in a nonsmoking bar,” Lusty said. “But if that meant that the bar was sterile, I wouldn’t go into it.”
“Liberty and pursuit of happiness is what this country is all about,” said Ray Donkus, president of Californians for Smokers’ Rights. “And my happiness includes having a cigarette whenever I want to.”
Donkus said repealing the smoking ban in progressive California would be an uphill battle.
“It’s a rough go, but we hope common sense will prevail,” he said.