Monday, March 22, 2004

Anyone interested in the proposed smoking bans and initiatives clouding D.C. skies ought to click on, and take another puffing perspective.

This spunky site was started primarily by Zoe Mitchell, a single 20-something public advocate who counts among her memberships a group known as “Washington Interns Gone Bad.”

Ms. Mitchell, who said she always wanted to move to the District from her home in Calvert County, Maryland, is one of the new Washingtonians who have converged on the hot U Street corridor.

After this workaholic spends her days “working on the issues I cared about,” she likes to kick back and light up at her neighborhood watering hole, the Kingpin, at 9th and U streets NW.

But Ms. Mitchell is worried that such places will have to close doors if the nation’s capital adopts a smoking ban similar to the one that went into effect in nearby Gaithersburg yesterday.

So am I.

Alvin and Adrienne Carter, owners of the popular Hitching Post on Upshur Street NW, face a similar fate. Their small soul-food restaurant and bar will not survive if they lose their regular clientele — the majority of whom are smokers.

One Rockville restaurant, Dietle’s Tavern, contends it has closed because Montgomery County’s smoking ban caused them to lose substantial business.

I am not a smoker. Because several of my close friends are, we take turns sitting in the smoking or nonsmoking section of restaurants. But in a bar, I just expect a smoke-filled, juke-joint atmosphere.

Proponents of smoking bans argue that these bans do not cause economic hardship for restaurant owners. But many of the studies do not include places such as bowling alleys, bingo parlors, pool halls or bars where food is not sold. Ms. Mitchell points out that most of those studies refer to big restaurant chains, not to family-owned operations.

Just ask Harry E. Mulnix, owner of Harry’s Leaning Tower in Gaithersburg, who predicted in The Washington Times yesterday that the smoking ban that took effect yesterday will cost him 15 percent to 20 percent of his business. Sonny, a bartender at Summit Station, said he would lose money because most of the regular customers at the neighborhood brewery and restaurant are working-class smokers.

Ms. Mitchell and colleague Joanne McNeil, a Washington economic analyst, are using the site to lobby against the city’s smoking initiative, which is expected to end up on the November ballot should it withstand a court challenge from the restaurant association.

“Government nannyism” is how one Maryland legislator once characterized the proposed bans on smoking in restaurants and bars, meaning that these intrusive initiatives seek to make children of adults.

From California to New York City, jurisdictions are adopting smoking bans, but not without adverse consequences.

Some of the bans, Ms. Mitchell said, are being reconsidered or rescinded. Officials in Austin, Texas, for example, revoked a ban after its devastating effects on the local economy.

Melvin Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, has reported that smaller establishments have seen total sales decline an average of 30 percent during the week and 50 percent during the weekend. In New York City, where legislators are considering amendments to the smoking ban, 76 percent of bars and nightclubs experienced a 30 percent decline in business.

California’s ban has not been as devastating, opponents note, because it has numerous exemptions and good weather permits owners to operate outdoor smoking sections.

After a visit in the summer to New York City to watch her then-boyfriend’s band, Ms. Mitchell said she noticed many people standing on the streets outside restaurants. Few went in to watch the performance.

When she learned of the District’s proposed initiative through her involvement in the D.C. Statehood Green Party, she decided to research the effect of smoking bans on businesses and the local economy because “there is very little informed debate.”

“Someone’s got to fight [the ban],” she said.

Ms. Mitchell bristles when talking of the out-of-town proponents of the smoking ban who are being bankrolled heavily by anti-alcohol and antismoking foundations. She rightly points out that the District, like Maryland, can lose tax revenue when smokers opt to cross the Potomac River to the tobacco-friendly state of Virginia.

According to Washington restaurant officials, the industry contributed $160 million in sales taxes and hired 28,000 workers in 2002.

As for cancer deaths among those affected by secondhand smoke, who is forcing anyone to work in an eating and drinking establishment that allows for smokers?

“My key motivation all along is that this is about choice,” Ms. Mitchell said. The District already “has lots of options,” with more than 200 smoke-free bars and restaurants such as Love Cafe and the Health Bar on U Street NW. St. X restaurant at 14th and S streets allows smoking only after 11 p.m.

Nonsmokers can just as easily make the choice to patronize eating and drinking establishments that voluntarily impose bans. At least they have options. Smokers do not.

Taking away the options of smokers is too restrictive — maybe even fatally so — for the small establishments that want and need the business.

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