THE BOSTON GLOBE
Towns lead way on smoking ban
Boston may follow with vote today
By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff, 12/11/2002
With little fanfare and largely weak opposition, 69 cities and towns across Massachusetts have accomplished something that the Legislature failed to achieve during years of debate: They banished smoking from all bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, eliminating the storied tradition of a smoke and a Scotch.
In a vote scheduled for this afternoon, Boston's Public Health Commission appears poised to become the 70th to embrace such restrictions, which would mean that about 1.8 million Massachusetts residents live in a city or town that prohibits smoking in establishments that serve food and drink.
It represents a triumph of local authority during the past five years in the face of legislative inaction - and it also speaks volumes about the difficulty foes of smoking restrictions confront when the war shifts from a single battle front, Beacon Hill, to skirmishes staged in New England town halls.
''It's a lot easier to stand in one building and lobby 200 members of the Legislature than it is to drive around to the far corners of the state for night meetings with boards of health and city councils,'' said D.J. Wilson, tobacco control director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association. ''Now, with Boston being the biggest city in New England, all eyes are upon it.''
Smoking bans in Massachusetts
Given the rich history of public-health activism in Massachusetts towns, it's scarcely a surprise that they have assumed the lead in the campaign to eliminate smoking from public spaces. Now, Boston - which had the first public health commissioner in the nation, none other than Paul Revere - is close to adopting a ban that would go into effect within several months, with violators facing fines from $100 to $1,000.
And as Boston goes, so, too, may the rest of the state, where 19.5 percent of adults still smoke. That's what happened in California, where so many cities adopted smoking bans that a once-recalcitrant Legislature ultimately approved a prohibition. Only California and Delaware have statewide bans, while dozens of cities in states from Oregon to West Virginia have moved to restrict smoking in bars and nightclubs.
''Getting communities involved in the issues that impact on their families and their elders is exactly the way to go sometimes, especially when it's a hot-button issue that our legislators don't want to take up,'' said Karen Emmons, a professor of health and social behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health.
When Massachusetts lawmakers weighed smoking restrictions in the past, lobbyists on both sides of the issue descended on the Capitol. During the 1990s, the tobacco industry was legendary for its skill in blocking antismoking legislation. The Legislature considered smoking bans several times during the past decade, Wilson said.
Today, as it reels from court settlements, big tobacco is being forced to defend its position in city after city, something industry officials concede they often don't have the time or ability to do.
''We certainly have from time to time communicated our position,'' said Brendan McCormick, a spokesman for tobacco maker Philip Morris. ''We haven't been involved in every instance of local legislation coming up.''
Sometimes, McCormick said, the industry's involvement is limited to sending information to smokers riled by proposed prohibitions. Other times, it means working with associations that represent the hospitality industry. Public-health authorities and activists involved with shaping the proposed Boston ban said this week they can find no evidence of the tobacco industry's tracks in recent weeks.
Instead, trade groups, including the Massachusetts Hospitality Association, have assumed the mantle of opposition.
''The little guy, the neighborhood bars and taverns, stand to be hurt the most because smokers make a greater percentage of their customer base,'' said Alan Eisner, executive director of the hospitality group. ''You're particularly in double jeopardy when you're near cities or towns where they allow smoking.''
The number of such cities is diminishing. Even Provincetown, legendary for its tolerance of hedonism, had begun by Oct. 1 to enforce the latest smoking ban on the Cape.
But that does not mean that smokers - or the bars that once catered to them - have gone quietly into the night.
''People who come in and sit down to have a cocktail, there is a social environment that is very much a part of the bar scene. They don't want to have to go out into the cold to have a cigarette, and you can't blame them,'' said Steve Melamed, owner of the bar Steve's Alibi as well as Bayside Betsy's, a restaurant and bar. ''Plus, it's an unenforceable law. What are you going to do? Have the smoking Nazis running around? It's a joke.''
But Melamed is unlikely to find a receptive audience at the Provincetown Board of Health.
''It certainly came up that this is a free-spirited place and that it would affect the nature of Provincetown,'' said chairman Mark Baker. ''But a Board of Health is duty bound to protect its citizenry. Now, we've gotten reports from bartenders who said it's nice at the end of the night not to have to jump in the shower or wash their clothes because they reek of smoke.''
If that same sentiment prevails in Boston, the result could be something that has eluded Beacon Hill powerbrokers: a statewide ban on workplace smoking.
''Once it goes into effect in Boston and we see that the sun rises the next day, then other cities and towns will feel more confident to move forward,'' Wilson said. ''And then state legislators will feel more confident to move forward.''
Stephen Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/11/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.