Banned in Burlington

Smoky bars in downtown Burlington, VT are getting aired out this year. Like its predecessors of New York, Boston, and Boulder, Burlington will pass an ordinance prohibiting cigarette smoke in bars, cabarets, and all other workplaces as an attempt to protect employees from the dangers of second hand smoke.

The Vermont Legislature restricted smoking in most workplaces in 1987, and it prohibited smoking in restaurants in 1993. In an open meeting on February 2, 2004, City Councilors voted to pass a resolution to ban smoking in the Burlington bars.

There is no law in effect at this time because the resolution has yet to be approved by the city attorney, licensing committee, and ordinance committee. In Vermont cities can only make laws by the permission of the state, so the city attorney must make sure that the ban is allowed. Burlington will be taking the lead as the first city in Vermont to pass the ban, but already there is talk of a similar ban in South Burlington and surrounding cities.

As stated in the resolution, “the Burlington City Council recognizes the right of all employees who wish to breathe smoke-free air and desires to establish a policy to protect and improve the public health and welfare by prohibiting smoking in all workplaces in the City of Burlington.” City Councilor, Ian Carleton, believes this resolution is a “straightforward health issue.” Carleton has received numerous letters, emails, and phone calls from citizens of Burlington, and organizations, such as the American Cancer institute, thanking the City Council for the resolution. Although he has not received any calls from bars, Carleton recognizes that “the reaction is divided among bar owners” because “they are legitimately nervous about the effect that this will have on their business.” Only one person so far has voiced a concern to Carleton from a business perspective.

In New York City, where the ban has been in effect since March 2003, there has been some time to see the economic effects. Some businesses have experienced no change in sales, while others have experience a significant change. According to the New York Times, “owners and employees reported selling fewer drinks and losing customers before dessert” (Winnie Hu. December 28, 2003). Some regular restaurant goers were attracted to the smoke free environments, while other “regulars have disappeared with the ashtrays” (Winnie Hu December 28, 2003). Cigarettes and cocktails have gone hand in hand in the bar scene, so a complete adjustment for the city will take more time.

For many smaller bars in Burlington, it is questionable whether they will be able to survive through a few economically bad months once the ban in set in action. Damon Brink, owner of Nectars, is not worried about his establishment because it offers good food, bands, and events, in addition to alcoholic beverages. But Brink is worried about his neighbors, who do not have the draw of food.

When asked about his customers’ reactions, Damon said that “there is definitely a majority of them that seem happy,” but there is “definitely a group of people who feel their civil rights have been infringed.” Cigarettes are not illegal in the United States to buy or sell. Brink is “in favor of healthy and safe workplaces, but not in favor of the process.” He believes that the resolution occurred too quickly, “should have involved local business owners more”, and could have benefited from additional creative thinking and communication.

Burlington has often been compared to Boulder, Colorado because of the similar bar scene and college town setting, and the resolution for Burlington was made with Boulder in mind. However, Boulder is significantly larger than Burlington, so the effects might be different. In Burlington, college students are an integral part of the dynamics of the community. The ban will affect students because students frequent many of the Burlington bars.

Most students, smokers and non-smokers, seem understanding of the ban. Some students are even excited. The ban will alleviate the problem of breathing in smoke and leaving a bar smelling like an ashtray. The details for smokers, such as going outside and returning after a cigarette, leaving drinks unattended, noise outside bars, and enforcement of the law, are still being worked out. But by the time the law goes into effect, it will be a little warmer and going outside will be less of an inconvenience.