Smokefree DC is a citizen-based group whose goal is to promote smokefree environments in Washington, DC.

Gray veto means smokefree exemption is huge again

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Flickr photo courtesy of aperryproductions

The case of the convoluted budget amendment just got messier.

Mayor Vincent Gray has vetoed a measure that was supposed to narrow a huge exemption to the smokefree workplaces law — an exemption that the D.C. Council passed in June without public notice. (They claimed it was an accident.) However, because the second, narrower exemption really wasn’t that narrow, his veto isn’t such a bad thing. Now, the Council will likely revisit the legislation – and that gives us a shot at getting the exemption repealed altogether.

But let’s back up. You recall that in June, the Council, in the middle of a budget discussion, introduced and quickly passed an enormous exemption to the smokefree workplace law. They claimed later that they had meant it to apply to just two events — Fight Night (a fundraiser) and the annual St. Patrick’s Day fete held by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick (of which Councilmember Jack Evans was a member and may still be). In fact, by our calculations, 79 hotels would be eligible to hold one cigar-smoking event annually.

So the Council decided to try again. On July 12, it passed another measure. This one applied to hotels that “[h]ave a ballroom or special event catering space with an occupancy of 500 or more persons.” Again, several proponents of this very bad idea claimed that the exemption was for just two events. Councilmember Phil Mendelson questioned that, saying on the dais that he thought more than just two hotels would fit in this category. His colleagues ignored him.

Turns out he was right.

Smokefree DC checked with the convention bureau and got a list of hotels that would qualify for the exemption. Puzzles, we checked back with the D.C. budget office and with a staffer in Councilmember Michael Brown’s office. Both insisted that just six hotels would be eligible for the exemption, and since a few of them had no-smoking policies, the new law effectively would apply just to two hotels.

Wrong again. Smokefree DC looked up the hotels online and looked at the facilities they listed. Sure enough, 25 hotels are eligible for the exemption. You can see the list – and the links to the facility descriptions – here. We sent the list back to the staffer who told us that really, jut six hotels were eligible for the exemption. We have not received a response.

We have to note that during the July meeting, Mendelson, on principle, tried to strip the exemption altogether and restore the smokefree law to its original form. Councilmembers Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) sided with Mendelson. They lost that attempt, 10-3.

But back to the story. Dissecting exactly what the Council really did took some time. This week, just as we were preparing to send a letter to the Council with our findings, pointing out that despite the high-minded speeches on the dais from members who piously proclaimed that they were all in favor of smokefree policies but wanted to help the children of the District of Columbia, we got word that Gray vetoed the July bill.

That means the original measure – the really bad, broad June exemption that applies to 79 hotels – stands. That’s not good.

But it appears as though the Council will revisit this in September when they return from their August holidays. When they get back, they shouldn’t even try to narrow the exemption to two events. They should repeal it altogether.

It’s wrong that they are weakening a key health and safety law. It’s wrong that they did it through a budget amendment, thereby completely bypassing the public. It’s wrong that they are so willing to expose hotel workers to the toxins of secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke has more than 400 chemicals, 69 of which are known or suspected carcinogens. The U.S. Surgeon General has established that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

If you agree, please contact the Council and let them know.

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