December 7, 2003

Hot air at the D.C. city council

By: Joanne McNeil

Last Wednesday, the D.C. City Council Public Works Committee held a public hearing on the proposed “Smoke-free Workplaces Act of 2003.” The bill, as introduced by city council members Adrian Fenty and Kathleen Patterson, would ban smoking in all public and private establishments defined as “workplaces.”

The lobby behind this bill, Smokefree D.C., is yet another one of the neo-prohibitionist Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s propaganda machines, with well over $250,000 in funding to show for it. A dozen of their members arrived at the hearing in bright blue “I Love a Smokefree D.C.” t-shirts. Some stayed for the photo-op and promptly left, while others submitted cut-and-paste testimonies. Although Smokefree D.C. had the decency not to trot out people attached to ventilators and feeding tubes, every other cliché you can imagine appeared in front of the city council that day.

Mike Ferens, the group’s founder, testified that his job as a bartender gives him serious allergic problems. He never explained why he continues to work at clubs if the problems are so severe. Juliana Jones, a waitress at the Afghan Grille, found a solution to her problem by getting a job at a nonsmoking establishment. So why does she doubt that others won’t do the same? The Smokefree group themselves have published a list of over 260 bars and restaurants that are entirely “smoke-free”–certainly one or more of them is hiring.

One name that is not on their list, but was mentioned several times by Smokefree D.C. members, is Club Insomnia. Smokefree D.C. volunteers read the testimonies of two of its waitresses; both complained that secondhand smoke was making them sick. But according to press releases, their boss–club owner Michael Romeo–is himself a member of Smokefree D.C. So if he is opposed to smoking in public places for the reasons that Smokefree specifies, doesn’t he feel it’s wrong to subject his workers to secondhand smoke? Why hasn’t he make his club voluntarily smoke-free without nanny state interference? It works for the Warehouse Theater–a nonsmoking live music venue just a few blocks away–and they have nothing to do with Smokefree D.C.’s campaign. As it stands, the only night Romeo has prohibited smoking was for a Smokefree D.C. gala in September.

It went downhill from there. One woman testified that she started smoking in college because she was “in a sorority” and smoking was “popular.” She quit years later when her daughters said, “Mommy, you smell!” There were three students from the Banneker School for the “awwwh” factor. Another person cited the death of a 90 year old woman in a smoky bar as “evidence” of the potential damage secondhand smoke could have on, well, nonagenarians. And yes, one guy’s testimony amounted to little more than “I want to go to the cool places, but without the smoke!”

That member of Smokefree D.C. left his blue t-shirt at home and wore a leather jacket instead. The list of bars and restaurants Smokefree D.C. provides just aren’t good enough for him. He wants places like the Blue Room and Chi-Cha Lounge to cater to his demands as well.

“So why don’t you open a smoke-free bar or club?” answered Councilmember Carol Schwartz, the Public Works committee chairwoman, in reference to his claims he’s “dabbling” in local business ventures himself. “You could call it ‘Smokefree Club.'”

Schwartz’s clever commentary made the public hearing, which went on from 11a.m. until 9 p.m., where quite enjoyable. “Put your money where your mouths are,” she ordered the Smokefree volunteers. “Don’t give your business to the establishments that allow smoking.”

The day before, Schwartz brought forth her own amendment to D.C. smoking policy, “The Smoke-free Workplaces Incentive Amendment Act of 2003.” It would provide a 15 percent tax credit to nonsmoking establishments. The bill has seven co-sponsors out of 13 council members. Fenty, Patterson, and “Smokefree Workplaces Act of 2003” co-sponsor Phil Mendelson, are not supporting Schwartz’s bill.

Although 57 people came to speak in favor of the bill, many of them were read by Smokefree D.C. volunteers, each testifying multiple times. Several others were people that Smokefree D.C. bused in from New York and Delaware.

But every single one of the 50 people speaking out against the ban represented his or herself. Each was a local resident. Most of them were employees or owners of local establishments like Tryst, Clyde’s, The Capitol Lounge, and the 9:30 Club.

Three people came to speak from the Black Cat. Bartender John Arce explained that bars and clubs cannot be compared to office buildings because “an office building [isn’t] going to lose revenue because people need to go outside to smoke.”

Polly’s Cafe owner, Cici Mukhtar–whose establishment, in addition to the Black Cat, is a big part of the reason why we can now walk down 14th Street without mace–explained her plan to open a bar in Petworth, a neighborhood not unlike the U Street Corridor five years ago. Unfortunately, Mukhtar could not address Petworth Councilmember Adrian Fenty directly as he had left hours before the hearing concluded. Opening a bar in Petworth is a risky enough investment. A smoking ban would render it impossible for her to secure the necessary loans.

Some of the most moving testimony came from city tobacco shop owners like David Berkabile from Georgetown Tobacco. Fenty’s bill could destroy their businesses because it has no exemptions for tobacco shops.

“Where is this going to go folks? I don’t want to be in this world you are telling me!” said Schwartz to Smokefree D.C. She asked whether transfat is next. “If I want to eat fat, I will. This is America.”

By the end of the night, Smokefree D.C. co-founder Angela Bradbery had her head in her hands. It was clear, “The Northern Virginia Nightlife and Hospitality Revitalization Act,” as Frederic Harwoord from the D.C. Licensed Beverage Association called it, was dead.

Joanne McNeil is the co-founder of Ban the Ban. Her website is