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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Monday, April 09, 2007

No More Smoking in Baltimore's Bars

Smoking ban sparks opposition, but it offers a fresh new beginning

By Steve Charing

Tom Mathison is the passionate owner of The Quest—a popular seven year-old neighborhood pub on Fleet Street in the Highlandtown area of Baltimore. It boasts so many loyal, regular patrons—from the very young to the very senior—that they all seem to know each other.

As is the case with all bars and restaurants in Baltimore and throughout the state, The Quest will be facing a ban on smoking early next year. Some of the patrons at The Quest welcome the ban—even smokers. They enjoy the fun too much at the bar, especially during happy hour, to bale just because of the need to light up. But the owner, a smoker, has different views and is vehemently opposed to the looming ban.

"They’re chipping away at small business more and more," Mathison protested. "We have a war in Iraq, illegal immigration—more important issues—but they have to do this. They should put this before the voters."

But if it had been voted on, no doubt a statewide ban would have been resoundingly supported by the citizens of Maryland. According to a recent Gonzalez poll, 72 percent of Marylanders back the legislation. And that is why the ban passed easily during this year’s General Assembly session after several years of failed attempts.

The effort to ban smoking here had been buoyed by a report last year from the U.S. Surgeon General stating that the public health hazards of secondhand smoke are "indisputable." And according to the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition, an advocacy group, "Secondhand smoke exposure is the third leading cause of preventable death, killing 1,000 Marylanders every year."

In addition, similar bans in several states including California, Massachusetts, Ohio and New York, plus neighboring Delaware and Washington, D.C., along with the backing of Governor O’Malley, made it more politically acceptable to defy the well-organized opposition, led primarily by the Restaurant Association of Maryland. The lobbying organization insisted the ban would keep smokers away from these establishments and force small pubs and taverns out of business.

Baltimore City passed a smoking ban late February, which also provided impetus to the state legislation. The city, whose ban takes effect next January 1, joined Charles, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s and Talbot counties that have prohibited smoking in restaurants and bars.

The Quest’s Tom Mathison, who generously holds benefits to support the lgbt community, doesn’t see the issue in terms of health; he sees it as a matter of choice. "What ever happened to freedom of choice," he asked. "What’s next?" He believes that owners should have the choice to allow smoking or not, and if the non-smokers do not want to come to a smoky gay bar, it is their choice not to. And the same applies to employees: they don’t have to work there. Currently three of The Quest’s four employees smoke.

The Quest, just like other affected establishments, faces the prospects of patrons standing outside in the cold and rain to smoke between drinks. "I can’t see the older customers doing that," said Mathison disconsolately. "This is going to hurt."

More than most gay bars in the city, The Quest depends heavily on locals or regulars for their clientele. Being situated distantly from Baltimore’s epicenter of gay bustle, The Quest lacks the proximity to other similar bars that exists in Mt. Vernon. Those are clustered closely enough to bar hop with ease, and patrons are drawn to Mt. Vernon in greater numbers to avail themselves of the myriad clubs, eateries, shops and cultural opportunities that the district offers.

Perhaps that difference in geography with its resulting drawing power explains the disparate reaction of two of Mt. Vernon’s bar owners from that of Tom Mathison, who must retain his customer base to stay in business.

Jay Lamont, owner of Jays on Read and a smoker himself, is not concerned about the smoking ban. "I plan to survey my customers to see if they want the ban put in place sooner," he said. Lamont indicated that many of his clientele support the ban and realizes there are a lot of potential customers ready to return to the bar scene once the ban is in effect.

Chuck Bowers, the longtime owner of the venerable Hippo and a non-smoker, is a bit more guarded with his assessment of the ban. Asked how he sees the impact of the ban on his business, Bowers replied, "It’s too soon to tell," but he added that customers were already enthusiastically welcoming an era of a smoke-free environment. He is also considering imposing the restrictions sooner than the January 1 target date.

Bowers’ main concern, however, is that if patrons decide to step out of the bar to smoke there would be issues regarding the city’s existing loitering ordinance that prohibits congregating within 100 feet of a bar. That’s going to have to be addressed, he said.

As a non-smoker myself, I strongly believe that the ban could not have come too soon. I have frequented gay bars for well over three decades and have returned home with my clothes reeking of cigarette smoke and imagining what that must be doing to my lungs. I had helplessly watched my mother succumb to lung cancer, and I don’t wish that horror on anybody.

Less importantly, I received my share of cigarette burns to my arms and shirts from cavalier, unapologetic smokers blithely holding their cigarettes out as I try to navigate around a crowded bar.

Yes, it was my choice to patronize these bars—or was it? After being stuck in the closet for years, I decided I needed to seek gay-friendly establishments where I can freely and safely meet friends, old and new, while enjoying cocktails. I cannot understand why my partner and I as well as other non-smokers should be denied the opportunity to socialize where we are best accepted just to avoid the consequences of others smoking. So in a way it was a choice but in other ways it wasn’t.

But choices are not something all bar owners or customers have in the wake of health crises. Recall how during the peak of the AIDS epidemic certain gay bars’ back rooms, as well as bath houses (where anonymous risky sex took place) were shut down even though the clientele had the choice of entering or not prior to the ban.

Once the ban is implemented I know that many people—especially baby boomers—will re-introduce themselves to the bar scene they had abandoned years back. This will bring in new customers, and those remaining smokers may finally see this as an opportunity to cut back or quit. As for bar owners, there has been scant evidence to suggest that the bans in other states and localities have resulted in adverse effects on the bar business.

The ban here was inevitable. It is a breath of fresh air—for customers and bar employees—and for the bar owners, it presents an opportunity for a fresh new beginning.

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