7 private clubs sue over smoking ban; Claim town rule violates law, costs them revenue, members
Seven private clubs have filed a lawsuit against the town over the smoking ban Weymouth enacted last year.
The clubs, which include groups like the Weymouth Elks and the Sons of Italy, claim that the ban violates state law, the U.S. Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. A trial is scheduled for March 6 at Norfolk Superior Court.
The health board approved the smoking ban, which went into effect last March. Two months later, Mayor David Madden proposed exceptions for private clubs and bars, but the health board denied the request.
According to the club managers, the ban has significantly affected activities that bring revenue to private clubs. Two managers said attendance and revenue at bingo games has dropped 30 to 50 percent, hall rentals have decreased, and some people have dropped their membership.
â€˜â€˜We were exempt in the beginning because we are private and you need a key to get in the door,'' said Paula Lankowski, manager of Weymouth Elks Lodge 2232. â€˜â€˜They rescinded that. They decided that it was a risk to employees. Well, every employee is an Elk.''
The lawsuit was filed against the town of Weymouth, the local board of health, and Health Director Richard Marino. Assistant town solicitor George E. Lane III said he's confident the town will prevail. He said there is â€˜â€˜virtually no case law in existence that steps in the way of a town regulating smoking in either public establishments or entities that purport to be private.''
Marino said that several public hearings were held on the matter, and the board voted for a regulation that protected the health of town residents and businesses.
â€˜â€˜By and large, health boards have prevailed on the merits of their cases when (the smoking bans) have been properly enacted, as this one was,'' he said.
In response to the lawsuit, town lawyers argue that claims of privacy by clubs do not make them immune to town regulation. Publicly issued licenses for the sale of liquor and food gives the town the authority to restrict or prohibit such activities as smoking, the town argues.
Dozens of South Shore towns have passed smoking bans of some sort, whether they be in municipal buildings, restaurants, bars, or private clubs. Weymouth clubs contend that they are losing business to private clubs in other communities where smoking is allowed.
The Weymouth smoking ban followed a tumultuous and confusing path that stretched over the course of a year. The health board initially passed the ban in July 2001, and it was to take effect in January 2002. That original ban allowed an exemption for private clubs. After the board decided to postpone the date when the ban would go into effect, it also voted to lift the exemption for private clubs.
In May, Madden proposed a compromise that would exempt private clubs, bars, and bar-areas of restaurants, but the health board voted 4-1 against the mayor's proposal. Gary Peters, a board member, cast the dissenting vote.
â€˜â€˜Did we do the right thing as a board?'' said Peters. â€˜â€˜I was torn on the issue. We tried to reconcile some very difficult issues.'' He added that he stands by the board's decision and feels the town will win the case, but offered some regrets that legal action had to be taken at all.
â€˜â€˜I'm sorry it's come to this,'' he said.''
Madden also said that, though he proposed a compromise exempting private clubs, he stands by the board's decision and is confident of their chances in court.
The private clubs think otherwise.
â€˜â€˜They've gone a little bit too far here,'' said Edward Clancy, attorney for the plaintiffs. â€˜â€˜They've stepped into the private realm. Members of these clubs consider the membership lounges to be like their living rooms and believe they should be able to smoke there if they want and the town should stay out of it.''