With Baited Breath

City Council postponed voting on a bill that would ban smoking in public places.

By Gwen Shaffer
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 23, 2005

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Philadelphia City Council's effort to ban cigarettes from all public spaces, including restaurants and bars, went up in smoke March 17. With the measure lacking enough votes to pass, members opted to table it and work on a compromise.

In a dramatic move, Councilman Frank Rizzo called for the vote to be postponed-after the chief clerk had already recorded two "no" votes. Councilman Michael Nutter, who sponsored the controversial smoking ban bill, quickly agreed.

Nutter went into Council chambers last Thursday believing at least eight of his colleagues would vote in favor of a smoking ban. When it became obvious that only seven other members would cast "yes" votes-one vote shy of passage-Rizzo spoke up.

"I've done the math," Rizzo said. "The last thing that I'd like to see happen today is that this legislation fail."

Nutter asked City Council President Anna Verna to delete the record. He said he'd work with colleagues to reach a compromise, and call up the bill again-he hopes, later this month. Verna went along with the request, and nobody opposed her decision.

As currently written, Nutter's bill would prohibit smoking in all workplaces and within 15 feet of building entrances, where smokers tend to congregate. Legislators who oppose a smoking ban insist it will destroy "neighborhood taverns," where many customers come to both drink and smoke. These small pubs would lose business, insisted Councilman Rick Mariano.

"The time to pass this is not today," he said during a floor speech before the voting started.

Patrons will flee to bars in Montgomery, Bucks and Delaware counties if they can't smoke in Philadelphia, insisted Councilman Jack Kelly. If the smoking ban were statewide, "I'd entertain it," he said. "I'd like to see this done on a level playing field."

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell expressed similar opposition to the legislation. "It penalizes one group of Philadelphians in order to help another, which goes against my philosophy," she said.

However, dozens of studies and hard economic data have shown that smoke-free laws don't harm sales or employment in restaurants and bars. They may even have a positive impact by attracting customers who previously avoided smoky places.

Some of the strongest evidence comes from New York City, where a Zagat's study found that, in the year after the city's comprehensive smoke-free law took effect March 30, 2003, business receipts for restaurants and bars increased. Employment rose; the number of liquor licenses increased; and virtually all establishments are complying with the law, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Nutter implored his colleagues to support smoke-free establishments in Philadelphia. He characterized the ban as a "critically important issue in our city."

"In Council we have the power to change lives and save lives. That's the essence of public service, the reason I came here," he said. "We don't get that opportunity very often, but we have that opportunity today."

Councilman Brian O'Neill said he opposed smoking restrictions when Nutter proposed them a few years ago but has since flipped. "This issue has been tested, and succeeded everywhere that tried it," he said. "People at the corner bar will step outside to have a cigarette."

Councilman David Cohen, a former chain-smoker, said it's time to stop treating smokers so politely. "They have no right to make our air impure."

Despite the postponed vote, the Street administration characterizes last week's events as "a step in the right direction."

"To a certain degree, this is progress," says mayoral spokesperson Dan Fee. "When this came up a couple years ago, the legislation didn't go anywhere."

Enacting a workplace smoking ban "is a priority of this administration," Fee adds.

Nutter says he believes a compromise allowing smoking in sidewalk cafes and immediately outside buildings could sway at least one colleague to cross over and vote in favor of the measure.

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