Smoking ban worries owners: Many proprietors fear losing customers to nearby towns
DEDHAM - Restaurant and bar owners said they are afraid that an effort to restrict smoking may drive customers to Boston or other towns.
The Board of Health recently gave a green light to draft a non-binding ballot question, which will ask residents whether smoking in restaurants and bars should be banned. The question will go before voters at the March 15 town election.
The fear of losing customers to Boston or other communities may prove unfounded, health officials say. Boston is also headed for a smoking ban, and may have it in place by spring 2003, health officials said.
"By the time voters go to the town election in the spring, there should be a very clear sign that Boston is moving closer to being smoke-free," said D.J Wilson, the tobacco director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
The local Board of Health has the power to enact a smoking ban in the town's 90 restaurants without public comment. Officials, however, wanted to gauge public sentiment before changing regulations, according to Health Director Frank Scurti.
"I would prefer it if the ban was universal and not just in Dedham," said Pam Mercadante, guest relations coordinator at Vinny Testa's Bar Ristorante on 233 Elm St., off Providence Highway. "That way, we would not have to worry about losing our customers to Boston."
On an average night, Vinny Testa's sits 60 patrons in its smoking section, which has 11 tables and 35 bar stools, Mercadente said.
Frank Santo, the owner of Isabella at 566 High St., said his restaurant has been smoke free for seven years and business is fine.
Health officials said Dedham is far behind other area communities in regulating smoking in public places.
Westwood, Dover, Needham, Wellesley and Brookline already have smoke-free restaurants, said Eileen Sullivan, acting director of field operations for the state Department of Public Health's tobacco control program.
Norwood and Boston have prohibitions against smoking in restaurants that don't have liquor licenses.
Walpole requires smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants and bars. Earlier this year, Norwood residents voted in a non-binding ballot question that smoking should not be banned in restaurants and bars.
In fact, nearly a million Massachusetts residents now live in cities or towns with complete bans on smoking in restaurants.
Sullivan said a regional approach called Clean Air Works is aimed at making all towns smoke-free at the same time so businesses do not lose customers. Boston is already involved with Clean Air Works.