Cigar bars and stores worried about smoking ban

Though the D.C. City Council’s proposed smoking ban would provide exemptions to establishments such as cigar bars and tobacco outlets, most businesses that make their livelihood on smoking are opposed to the ban.

Smoking ban legislation, first proposed to the council two years ago, was passed 3-0 Oct. 26 by the council’s Health Committee and is now pending a full council vote. The rule would ban smoking in restaurants and bars beginning January 2007, but includes exemptions for cigar bars, outdoor areas, hotel rooms and tobacco outlets.

Under the legislation, businesses that generate no more than 25 percent of their revenue from products besides tobacco and accessories are exempt from the ban. The full council could pass the bill by early December, and following approval by Mayor Anthony Williams and Congress, the law could take effect as early as April for restaurants. Other businesses without exemptions would have until January 2007 to comply.

Though Shelly’s Back Room, a D.C. cigar bar located at 13th and F streets, would be exempt from the smoking ban, owner Bob Materaczi has voiced his opposition to city council’s plans.

“It will not help our business because it will reduce volumes in this business corridor,” he said, adding that a cigar bar does not provide the same type of atmosphere that a regular bar would for smokers.

Materaczi believes that smokers will choose to leave the District when looking for a bar to patronize on the weekends, since not all nearby Virginia and Maryland counties have a ban.

“It will have a downward effect on everyone – cab drivers, the Metro, all businesses, especially in Georgetown, because they can hop over the bridge to Arlington,” he said. “If you give smokers a reasonable alternative, they’ll take it.”

Gerry Metcalf, manager of Ozio’s Martini and Cigar Lounge at 1813 M St., who is unsure if her bar would be exempt under the bill because it is also a restaurant, said she opposes the ban as well.

“If we are exempt, it wouldn’t hurt our business,” Metcalf said, adding that she thinks most restaurants adequately offer a smoking and non-smoking section – like her’s does.

Councilman David Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the council’s Health Committee, has been approached by interest groups and establishments that are upset with the proposed ban. Ross Weber, Catania’s press secretary, said the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington has warned Catania that the ban will have a negative impact on business in the District. Weber said supporters of the bill believe it is integral to protecting employees from the dangers of secondhand smoke

The D.C. Council has cited economic studies of New York City and Maryland’s Montgomery County, both of which have similar bans on smoking, and maintains that there will be little negative impact on businesses if the ban is enacted.

“For one, the economic studies suggest there has been negligible, if any, negative impact,” Weber said. “Two, the entire region seems to be going smoke-free.”

Not all establishments in the tobacco business foresee a large loss of profits due to the proposed bill. Moe Coliv, manager of the Prince Caf? in Georgetown, which is also a popular hookah bar, said that 80 percent of its business comes from food services.

“Two years ago, we were just hookah, but there’s not a lot of smoking now,” he said.

Peter Franklin, manager of Exchange Limited, a popular restaurant and bar for GW students located on 18th and G streets, said he has a special disdain towards interest group involvement in the smoking ban.

“I thought we lived in America,” he said. “If you want to smoke, smoke. If you don’t want to smoke, don’t smoke. There are 50,000 bars and restaurants to go to (that don’t allow smoking).”

The Web site of Smokefree D.C. – a group that has been advocating for the ban – lists 193 District restaurants and bars that have voluntarily gone smoke-free.

Ed Gnehm, manager of Georgetown Tobacco, which cells cigars and pipes, said the market should decide the fate of smoking – not politicians.

“We just want all Washingtonians to have a choice,” Gnehm said. “If you take something legal from us that you can do in public, what’s next?”

If business owners are correct in their assessment of a loss of business, the legislation also includes an economic hardship waiver, which can be provided by the mayor to businesses who can demonstrate a “significant, negative impact” from the ban. Only existing businesses may apply for this waiver.

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