With all the problems afflicting the city’s health — from failing schools to youth crime — it’s ironic that the D.C. Council decided to play doctor Tuesday for restaurant and bar employees and their patrons. With at-large Republican Carol Schwartz the lone exception, 12 council members passed a smoking ban in nearly all public places.
The near-unanimous vote means that even if Mayor Tony Williams chooses to veto the bill, the District will still likely become smoke-free by 2007. That sound you hear is the sound of thousands of disgruntled smokers taking the five-minute Metro ride into Arlington.
A brief word on Mrs. Schwartz. This page has been critical of Mrs. Schwartz’s efforts to save the city from an outright ban. While sympathetic to her motives, we couldn’t support the Schwartz proposal because it would have unfairly punished eating and drinking establishments which choose not to ban smoking.
For strictly economic reasons, it would be far better to put all D.C. restaurants and bars on the same competitive footing, rather than force a select few to pay outrageous overhead costs for ventilation systems and quadrupled business licensing fees. But even though the current bill allows establishments to apply for waivers, Mrs. Schwartz voted against it and for that we commend her.
As for the mayor, his few public comments on the matter suggest that his head is certainly in the right place. “I really fear the economic detriment here to our city,” Mr. Williams said Tuesday. Far more than most cities in the country, the District is dependent on its hospitality industry for revenue and the mayor seems to be particularly aware of that fact. Unfortunately, his comments come as too little too late. Had the mayor taken a stand against the ban earlier, instead of allowing the anti-smoking lobby to weasel its way onto the council’s dais, perhaps things would not be where they are.
But the economic consequences of a smoking ban are only part of the story. There’s also the matter of a free society versus one which legislates morality. The anti-smokers claim to be protecting the health of restaurant employees, never mind that employees choose to work in smokey room, but this is just the first step in a much grander campaign to ban smoking everywhere — sidewalks, cars, backyard barbecues. Council members, perhaps unwittingly, have moved the District that much closer to these extremists’ smoke-free utopia.
And for that reason, the mayor must follow Mrs. Schwartz’s example by taking a stand for a free society.