Less than a month after a smoking ban in D.C. bars and nightclubs came into effect, city leaders are considering easing the ban on businesses that may lose money from the changes.
The law follows an April 2006 prohibition of smoking in District restaurants. The new ban affects businesses that rely on alcohol sales, but it excludes those that earn over 40 percent of their revenues from tobacco products and paraphernalia.
D.C. councilmembers are considering legislation proposed by former Mayor Anthony Williams to exempt businesses that are losing revenue since the ban went into effect Jan. 2. The exemption is a compromise with bar and nightclub owners, who fear a flight of smokers to Northern Virginia.
Mayor Adrian Fenty, who assumed his position earlier this month, said Williams’ threshold for exempt businesses, 5 percent revenue losses, is not enough. “I believe the current smoking regulations should be more stringent to protect service employees and patrons of District establishments,” Fenty said.
The D.C. Council will vote on Williams’ bill within the next two weeks, after which Fenty will introduce his proposal for a higher threshold, his press secretary, Mafara Hobson, said.
GW law professor John Banzhaf, executive director of the non-smoker advocacy group Action on Smoking Health, said Fenty’s proposal does not go far enough.
“I don’t think there should be any exemptions at all,” he said.
He said owners could claim financial losses by reducing advertising and drink specials, which typically raise sales. Allowing businesses to bring back smoking because they’re losing money is similar to allowing businesses to operate with asbestos contamination because they would lose money if they fixed it, he said. Asbestos – like tobacco smoke – is a known carcinogen.
Banzhaf said both the U.S. Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have classified even the briefest exposure to second-hand smoke as a health risk. He said the rapidly growing number of states, cities and countries that have banned smoking shown that the practice is no longer an accepted nuisance.
“The idea that we have to accommodate smokers is changing,” he said.
Local Foggy Bottom restaurant owner Hien Bui said the ban has been great for both employees and customers at her restaurant and bar, Froggy Bottom Pub.
“I love it,” she said. “I haven’t seen any decline (in revenue).”
Bui said any formal assessment of her profits was impossible until financial returns come in at the end of the month. Despite this, Bui insisted Fenty’s new proposal would not affect her business any more than Williams’.
Brian Westlye, general manager of McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon, said the restaurant has not had any business problems with the recently enacted ban. He said other businesses in D.C. have reported declines in revenues, but it was a rare phenomenon.
On the issue of Fenty’s stricter legislation, Westlye thought the mayor’s position was understandable.
“I can see why the city would do that. I think it’s very fair,” he said.
Students, who came back to D.C. from winter break last week and dealt with the ban’s effects this weekend, had mixed reactions.
“It’s great,” freshman Nino Zambito said. “I mean when you’re going home with a girl, you want to smell like the cologne you put on, not cigarette smoke.”
Junior Chris Playo, who is a smoker, said he understands that most don’t enjoy smoke-filled bars and nightclubs.
“It’s not a big deal,” Playo said. “The majority of the public doesn’t like it, so I’ll accept that.”
Senior Erin Reilly said although she lives in New Jersey, where smoking is also banned indoors, bars are just not the same in D.C. without a cigarette.
“That’s really the most enjoyable part of a bar – drinking and smoking,” she said. “Without that it’s just not the same; it’s not complete.”
-Kaitlyn Jahrling contributed to this report.