Smokers’ last night out

It’s a chilly night outside The Big Hunt, a bar near Dupont Circle on Connecticut Ave. Senior Sam Raker is bundled up; he can see his breath when he exhales, and it seems like he is already smoking the cigarette which he will light only after settling down in the warm bar.

Inside, with a cigarette in his left hand and a beer in his right, Raker is enjoying each drag of his stoge, because he knows it’s a last hurrah of sorts. When Raker returns to The Big Hunt after winter break, he’ll have to smoke that cigarette on the street, ending D.C. smokers’ happy tradition of smoking in their favorite bars.

“Smoking while drinking – it’s really great. It goes together,” Raker said as he lights up a Marlboro Blend 27. Like many other smokers who enjoy social smoking, Raker said the habit is an integral way to occupy his hands and mouth in social situations where, without a cigarette, one might feel strained to find something to say or do.

“It’s the combination of having something to do with your hands and this great buzz that comes with it,” he said. “After the ban, I don’t know, I’ll probably smoke slightly fewer cigarettes just because it will become a hassle. I might play with my worry beads instead,” he adds, pulling out a string of playful-looking beads he bought in Greece, that are meant to occupy restless hands.

Starting in January, when students return to campus to begin their spring semester, the old romanticized stigma of the smoke-filled bar will become a thing of District’s past.

Last January, the D.C. City Council almost unanimously passed the smoking ban, applying it to all restaurants, bars and nightclubs in the city, in an effort to increase public awareness on the effects of secondhand smoke and to make D.C.’s indoor atmospheres a little cleaner.

Raker, who has asthma, said he will probably benefit from the ban in the long run.

“Smoking itself is not necessarily worth it. With asthma, and after smoking for four years, my lungs are crap,” he said. “But I plan to quit, and that’s my personal choice that the government should have no role in.”

Like Raker, many students are less opposed to the ban because of its limit on smoking then they are because of its limits on personal choice.

Mariacristina Ventresca, a sophomore who enjoys smoking mostly when she’s out at night with friends or at parties, feels that both health and choice is important.

“I think it will definitely cut back on secondhand smoke, and I feel that (college) kids might smoke less after the ban,” she said. “But, ultimately, I still feel that if people want to smoke they should be able to.”

Some student smokers feel otherwise. Junior Zubin Doshi, a light smoker although nonetheless a regular one, said he can commiserate with the council’s 11-1 vote.

“I like to go into a place and not be overwhelmed by the smell of smoke, so I think it’s a good idea,” Doshi said. “It just annoys me when I have to go outside and smoke and it’s cold outside.”

There are few venues in the city that don’t allow smoking. But after the ban takes effect, nonsmokers will have a wide variety of places to enjoy a smoke-free night.

But given how popular the act of smoking while drinking is to patrons of the cigarette, many bar and club owners are worried about losing business. A 2004 Duke University study found that even small amounts of alcohol boost the pleasurable effects of smoking, which may explain the common observation that people smoke more in bars, and are happy doing so.

Chain restaurants have already announced predicted profit losses from the smoking ban, and owners are wondering what they will do if they lose smoking clients to other places, like Virginia, which doesn’t restrict indoor smoking.

Mike Tobin, owner of Madhatters on M Street, said as much as 20 percent of his business profits could be affected, according to industry standards gauged in other major cities that have enacted smoking bans, such as New York.

“People will be outside smoking instead of buying things (in the bar),” he said. “I think I might lose half of my GW business, since so many GW students smoke.”

Tobin added that he has no immediate plans to accommodate smokers with an outdoor smoking venue.

“We’re a very small restaurant,” he said. “We don’t have room for a patio, and people will have to go out on the street to smoke.”

Students like sophomore Russom Woldezghi confirm Tobin’s fears.

“It will affect how many drinks I buy when I’m out at clubs if I can’t drink and smoke in the same place,” he said. “And if I’m stressed or anything, I need to have my cigarette.”

Other near-campus bar owners are preparing for the impact. Ellie Djavadkhani, owner of Karma on the corner of 19th and I streets, which frequently rents out its space for parties hosted by GW students, said all she can do is wait and see how the ban impacts her bar.

“I have no idea how it’s going to affect business,” she said. “Best thing I can think of is to accommodate smoking customers, to have my patio open all the time.”

Djavadkhani said she thinks the ban may even increase business among customers who are turned away from her bar when it’s filled with customers’ cigarette smoke.

“I notice every day that some people will come in here after work for a few drinks, smell and see all the smoke, and then turn away and look for someplace else,” she said. “Now everyone can be equally comfortable in a clean environment.”

In New York, where smoking indoors has been outlawed since March 2003, the ban has not had the type of crushing financial tolls that many critics warned of. But noise complaints are routine, when crowds of smokers stream outside the bars at all hours of the night for their nicotine fix.

For now, the effects of D.C.’s smoking ban are untold. But D.C. smokers will spend the next two weeks enjoying the last remnants of the beloved privilege to smoke indoors of public places.

Meanwhile, inside The Big Hunt, Raker finishes his beer, and puts out his cigarette stub. “Even drinking won’t be the same,” he says. “It will be harder to drink now without smoking.”

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