Williams Lets City Smoking Ban Move On to Congress for Review
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday declined to veto a smoking ban bill, allowing it to be enacted without his signature.
Williams (D) had considered vetoing the legislation, even though it had sailed through the D.C. Council this month with a veto-proof majority. Yesterday was the deadline for Williams to decide.
"While I have reservations about such a ban being enacted in the District, I respect the council's decision and want to work with them over the next few months to develop a regulatory system protecting the health of employees while mitigating the risk of harm that some dining and bar establishments may face,'' Williams said in a statement. "It is my preference that we unite around this goal and move forward.''
The act now goes to Congress, which has 30 legislative days to review the measure. If Congress takes no action to stop it, the two-stage ban will take effect automatically.
At first, the ban would apply to most indoor workplaces and restaurant dining rooms. Next January, the ban would be extended to bars, nightclubs, taverns and the bar areas of restaurants.
Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called Williams's decision a "historic victory for the public's right to breathe clean air in the nation's capital," saying it "adds to the growing momentum to enact such laws across the country and around the world."
Once enacted, the D.C. ban would include exemptions for outdoor areas, hotel rooms, retail tobacco outlets and cigar bars. The measure also would provide an economic-hardship waiver for businesses that demonstrate a "significant negative impact."
Williams said he was most concerned about the economic effect a smoking ban would have on the city's smaller businesses and neighborhood bars and taverns.
In addition, the mayor said he worried the ban would go "too far in restricting the freedom for individuals to dine and work where they please."
But Williams said he was persuaded not to veto the bill in part because of several calls from some high-powered peers. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R) and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) told Williams that their cities have not suffered economically from smoking bans.
"He did the right thing under the circumstances, because the votes were not there to sustain a veto," said council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), the only one to vote against the ban. "I tried every conceivable compromise, but my colleagues had already committed to the strong smoke-free lobby, which made even reasonable compromise impossible."
Williams's signature caps a three-year struggle by anti-smoking activists. The first effort failed three years ago under heavy lobbying by the Washington restaurant association, which argued that a ban would hurt business.
Two years ago, Schwartz did not allow a smoking ban bill to be reported out from her committee, and a D.C. Superior Court judge blocked an effort to place an initiative on the ballot that would have achieved the same goal.
During those years, the cities of New York, Boston and Chicago passed bans, as have the nations of Ireland and Italy. In the region, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties in Maryland have instituted smoking restrictions.
"I commend the mayor for doing what makes sense,'' said council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), a smoking ban supporter.
Angela Bradbery, co-founder of Smokefree DC, a group that pushed for the ban, said she was very pleased, but she said she was disappointed in Williams.
"It's sad that the mayor did not show leadership on this," Bradbery said. "Eleven states are smoke-free. I just don't know what planet he's on that he thinks this will be the end of D.C. nightlife as we know it."
Bradbery and others argued that workers in bars and restaurants should not be exposed to harmful second-hand smoke.
But ban opponents said the ban would limit freedom of choice. They said there are 200 restaurants and bars in the District that already prohibit smoking.
A New York government study showed that the city's bar and restaurant industry was thriving one year after its ban was enacted in March 2003. And in Massachusetts, the Harvard School of Public Health found little or no change in bar and restaurant patronage or tax collections after that state's ban was put in place in July 2004.