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Bar, Nightclub Smoking Under Scrutiny

By Frank Dabek

STAFF REPORTER

A proposal making its way through Cambridge’s city council would ban smoking in the city’s bars and nightclubs. The proposed ban is currently awaiting a final vote by the council after months of hearings, but faces opposition from bar and nightclub owners.

If the resolution is passed, Cambridge would join surrounding communities including the city of Boston in banning smoking in all workplaces.

Harold Cox, the city’s chief public health officer, who proposed the measure, said the ban would affect all workplaces but that, in effect, workplaces “primarily means bars and restaurants” since a 1998 city ordinance banned smoking in most other workplaces.

Cox said that the ban is motivated by the negative affects of second-hand smoke and represents “one more big step” toward eliminating second-hand smoke.

On the other side of the debate are bar owners like Jon Clifford, who manages the Green Street Grill in Central Square. Clifford called the ban a “bad idea” and said that it will have a negative impact on his business and that of other bars. After a ban on all workplace smoking was enacted in Brookline, “business [was] drastically reduced,” Clifford said.

“The fact of the matter is people smoke ... [and] they smoke more when they are drinking,” Clifford said. A smoking ban would only “send people to the streets” to smoke, which would be inconvenient for patrons and could cause crowd problems for areas like Central Square that are home to many bars, he said.

Clifford also said that the lawmakers behind the ban are not fully aware of the impact of their decisions: “they’re in bed by the time the music starts playing” at area nightclubs.

As a compromise solution, Clifford said that the city could grandfather the existing 86 smoking permits: no new permits would be issued and smoking would gradually be eliminated as bars closed or changed hands.

Ban currently before council

The proposal before the council would amend the city’s ordinance regulating the sale and use of tobacco. A five-vote majority of the councillors is required to enact the proposal. While the councillors could have voted on the proposal at their last regular meeting on February 24, no action was taken.

Councillor Timothy Toomey said that he is opposed to the ban. “I hate cigarettes ... but if people feel they want to [smoke] that is their prerogative.” Toomey said that he is comfortable with the city’s current policy on smoking and will vote against the ban.

No vote has been taken by the council, but the vote is likely to be decided by a narrow margin. Toomey said that the ban will likely “be decided by one vote either way.”

The council appears to be almost evenly split, with Councillor Denise Simmons holding the deciding vote.

Simmons could not be reached for comment.

Measure prompts hearings

Cox said that the council is not likely to vote on the matter before a scheduled hearing on the economic impact of the ban is held at the end of the month.

The proposal has been the subject of debate in numerous public hearings over the past several months. The minutes of these hearings show opponents of the ban citing the potential economic impact of a city-wide rather than regional or state-wide ban and the “spillover” impact of smokers on streets near bars in residential areas.

Proponents of the ban cited studies showing that 50,000 people are killed each year by second-hand smoke and argued that the economic impact of the ban will be minimal, especially since surrounding communities are likely to enact bans as well.