- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

The D.C. Council Committee on Public Works and the Environment will hold a hearing tomorrow on whether to ban smoking in workplaces, health care facilities, bars and restaurants throughout the city.

Supporters of a ban will argue that secondhand smoke is dangerous and that a ban will offer nonsmokers a healthier environment. “The truth is simple: Secondhand smoke kills,” said Bailus Walker Jr., an environmental and occupational professor at Howard University.

Opponents, however, contend that a ban on smoking infringes on smokers’ constitutional rights.

“It is not that we are opposed to nonsmoking,” said Lynne Breaux, who will address the committee on behalf of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. “We are opposed to limits on freedom of choice.”

The issue has been contentious since July when council members Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, and Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, introduced a bill that would prohibit smoking in all workplaces, including restaurants, bars and government office buildings.

Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, endorsed the bill, which states that “the inhalation of secondhand smoke resulting from the smoking of tobacco inside facilities in which the public congregates is a clear danger to health and a cause of discomfort to persons in such facilities.”

Mr. Fenty said yesterday that the District has “one of the weakest laws in the whole nation. It’s a monstrous loophole. As public officials, we have to do something about it.”

The District allows smoking in private offices, hospitals and day care centers. However, smoking is restricted in some areas of bars and restaurants. Establishments that were built after 1988 and can accommodate more than 50 patrons must prohibit smoking in 50 percent of their space. Those that opened before 1988 must offer 25 percent of smoke-free space for patrons. Nightclubs are exempt.

At noon today, public-smoking opponents are expected to announce the results of a poll that last month surveyed D.C. residents about a smoking ban. The results are expected to show overwhelming support for a new nonsmoking law.

Opponents, led by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, have said such a broad ban on smoking would cause severe financial problems for businesses, especially restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs.

“The economic effects are not fully known,” Ms. Breaux said. Also, by prohibiting smoking indoors, smokers will begin lingering and loitering in the streets, which can become a problem.

Committee Chairwoman Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, said yesterday that the financial implications are “very worrisome.” Bars and restaurants in Northern Virginia, Prince George’s County, Rockville and Gaithersburg do not prohibit smoking, she said.

Opponents suggest that smokers who typically go to D.C. establishments might “migrate” to those where smoking is allowed, Mrs. Schwartz said.

Supporters of the ban disagree. “Businesses do much better after the fact [of smoking prohibitions],” said Angela Bradbery, co-founder of March of Citizens for a Smokefree DC.

Mrs. Schwartz said the five-member committee will not discuss or act on the bill tomorrow night after the hearing. So far, there are more than 100 witnesses scheduled to address the committee during the hearing, which will begin at 10 a.m.

As chairwoman, Mrs. Schwartz can decide whether the committee will subsequently discuss the results of the hearing and vote to send the bill to the council for a final decision.

“I had the prerogative of having a hearing,” Mrs. Schwartz said, indicating her inclination for a complete study and analysis of potential laws.

In the District, 169 restaurants already offer smoke-free dining. Nationwide, 125 jurisdictions have banned smoking in restaurants, including California as the first in 1988, New York City, Boston, and Delaware, the most recent.

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