This editorial originally appeared in the February 20, 1998 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
It's ironic that Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration, which fought hard to win approval for a convention center in order to bolster Boston’s status as a major-league metropolis, has proven to be so inhospitable to the city’s hospitality business. There is, after all, more to this town than the Freedom Trail and the Citgo sign.
Every industry of any size likes to think of itself as indispensable to the city’s fabric. Over the past 30 years, the city’s restaurants, clubs, and bars have multiplied and matured, helping to transform Boston from a placid provincial hub into a vital, sophisticated, but still very livable city.
Talk to the people who orchestrate Boston’s nightlife, and many will say they feel anything but appreciated. Though self-interest may fuel their furor, they nevertheless make a compelling case that City Hall seems bent on squeezing the life out of Boston after dark. The complaints: inadequate parking coupled with a zealous brigade of parking police; cops and bureaucrats who enforce admittedly important operating and alcohol regulations with Kafkaesque intensity; and the threat of stricter regulations for 18-plus club shows, which are already too few in this college town.
No one doubts the mayor’s commitment to an orderly and safe city. But this is the stuff of tinhorn puritanism, not a world-class municipal administration. Now comes a sweeping proposal from the mayor himself: a plan requiring eating and drinking establishments to provide a physically separate area for smokers — or ban smoking altogether. As it now stands, the plan would literally require construction of a wall between patrons.
The initiative appears to come out of nowhere. City councilors were surprised, as were restaurant and bar owners. There has been no public clamor for a ban. But those close to Menino say that he is a committed nonsmoker who, together with his public health commissioner, David Mulligan, has been contemplating such a move for some time.
There is no compelling reason for this kind of far-reaching change. The ratio of smoking seats to nonsmoking ones already tilts heavily in favor of those who don’t smoke. Some establishments ban smoking entirely. And the few that do cater to more tobacco-loving crowds still obey government guidelines. Choices abound for diners. The market has done a good job of adjusting itself to the needs and wants of Bostonians.
At the heart of the mayor’s plan is a concern for the well-being of food and beverage workers. Exposure to secondhand smoke endangers their health, he argues. Yet the evidence is questionable. Several years ago the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that secondhand smoke causes cancer. Reputable congressional investigators questioned those results. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which polices the nation’s workplaces, has yet to take a stand.
In the years since the Surgeon General issued his report declaring smoking a health hazard, the number of places that allow smoking has been shrinking. Smokers may now be in a minority, but they still represent a sizable minority. And that rankles those who want to tell others how to live their lives.
On a practical level, locales that have tried to toughen their antismoking rules have found that they don’t always live up to the hype. Take Vermont. It requires the strict segregation of smokers and nonsmokers in restaurants but not in bars (or cabarets, as they are legally called in that state). Since those rules took effect, the number of licensed cabarets has increased fourfold as restaurants converted to serve their smoking patrons. California is already talking about relaxing its stringent new codes because of public opposition. And in New York, anecdotal evidence suggests that noncompliance is more widespread than officials care to admit.
The mayor is scheduled to present his proposal before the Public Health Commission this week. During the course of the subsequent public hearings, we’ll hear opponents argue that the proposal will hurt small establishments more than large ones, that 21 percent of the state’s regular restaurant patrons smoke, and that, proportionally, they contribute more dollars to restaurants than do nonsmokers. These are important points. But it is just as important to remember that although there is honest societal disagreement over smoking by adults, the reasonable compromise we have now — separate sections — already works well. In these pages, we’ve decried the demonization of marijuana and editorialized against overly emotional responses to underage drinking. In that same spirit, we argue that the mayor’s antismoking initiative is not only uncalled-for but goes too far.
Boston is supposed to be a sophisticated city, not a nanny state. Let businesspeople decide how best to meet the demands of the public. And let the public make up its own mind about where it wants to eat and drink.