- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

When the D.C. Council passed a bill to ban smoking in bars last year, we criticized the legislation as unnecessary government intrusion and overreach, and we also criticized the ban on a pragmatic level for the negative economic effect it would have on bars in the District. Smokers turned away from D.C. establishments would start to make the short trip across the Potomac and frequent bars in Northern Virginia, we argued at the time. And now that the ban has been in effect for two months, business is down at D.C. bars, The Washington Times reported on Tuesday. Several nightspots from Adams Morgan to Capitol Hill may have tobacco-smoke-free air, but they also have fewer customers.

Proponents of the ban tried to counter concerns with studies showing that bars in New York city and in Massachusetts were not economically effected by smoking bans. The same was said about Chicago. But none of these locales is analogous to the District; none face competition the way that the District does. Then-Mayor Tony Williams shared this concern, and we urged him to use his veto, which he ultimately opted not to do, even though the council would have made his opposition merely symbolic.

Two months — cold, wintry months that make the prospect of smoking outside considerably less appealing — is too short a period from which to draw definitive conclusions. Nonetheless, the predictable trend is emerging. The owner of the Hawk ‘n’ Dove on Capitol Hill, for instance, told The Times that it was the bar’s worst January in 40 years. The owner of the Capitol Lounge, who also owns several other establishments, said business was down an astonishing 40 percent since the ban took effect.

The smoking ban includes an exemption if an establishment can prove significant economic hardship. Mr. Williams had wanted to define that hardship as a 5 percent decline over three consecutive months. Mayor Adrian Fenty, one of the earliest supporters of the ban as a council member, wants instead the “more stringent” definition of a 15 percent drop in business. (New York city, where Mr. Fenty has been known to turn for inspiration, included the same exemption in its smoking ban.)

Mr. Fenty and the council should monitor this trend closely, and turn a more objective eye to the economic impact of the smoking ban. D.C. nightspots can ill afford a steady stream of bar-goers headed across the Potomac.

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