- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

In giving final approval Wednesday to a bill that would ban smoking in nearly all D.C. restaurants and bars, the D.C. Council has put District establishments at an economic disadvantage. Mayor Tony Williams has 10 working days to act on the bill, and if he vetoes it, the council has 30 days to override his veto by a two-thirds vote. With a vote of 11-1, proponents appear to have enough votes to do just that. This does not mean, however, that the mayor should shy away from using his veto power. Mr. Williams should veto this legislation, even if his efforts are only of a symbolic struggle against the vibrant D.C. nightlife sliping across the Potomac.

At risk for D.C. restaurant and bar owners is the loss of patrons to Northern Virginia, which has no smoking restrictions. “Our competition is only a five-minute Metro ride away or a 10-minute drive away,” said Council member Carol Schwartz, the lone opponent of the bill. Mr. Williams seems to understand this problem well, noting that he is opposed because of the unequal footing it would create in the region. Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties have banned smoking in bars and restaurants, but Virginia state law prohibits local legislation banning smoking in establishments, which means that Northern Virginia’s New Year’s gift from the D.C. Council will be the gift that keeps on giving for some time.

The council voted to exempt cigar and hookah bars, which, the council noted, are businesses entirely dependent on the sale of tobacco. Mrs. Schwartz rightly pointed out the contradictory nature of this exemption — if Washington needs a tobacco ban to protect the health of workers, why should the health of some workers count less than others. Other amendments, including one to put the ban into effect in July, were voted down.

In all likelihood, D.C. bars will become smoke-free in January 2007. But will this be the end of the anti-smoking movement? Why shouldn’t we expect the smoking ban to be extended from inside bars and restaurants to the doorways of those establishments and to the sidewalk outside? The same arguments that convinced the council to adopt this ban, after all, could just as easily be applied to other environs with the same results.

This ban is an economic mistake as well as a strike against personal liberty. With regards to using his veto pen, Mr. Williams said, “I still would do it anyway, just as a point, perhaps.” We think that this is a point worth making.

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