Restaurateurs Urge Council To Reject Anti-Smoking Law

Some Say Restrictions Would Put Restaurants at a Disadvantage

On the day City Manager Robert W. Healy introduced an ordinance that would impose stringent restrictions on smoking in the city, more than 120 restaurateurs converged on City Hall to urge the City Council to reject the proposed law.

The law would restrict smoking to 30 percent of a restaurant's total seats and 15 percent the year after enactment. The current law allows up to 75 percent of a restaurant's seats for smoking.

Restaurateurs, led by John R. Clifford, the owner of the Green Street Grill, crowded the council chamber to register protests against the ordinance, which they said would hurt their business. They said diners will opt to eat in Boston or Somerville if the law is enacted.

"It creates havoc," Clifford told the council. "It's an anti-working class ordinance that penalizes the neighborhood bars and restaurants where people go to smoke and drink."

The proposed law was the result of more than two years of work by Cambridge United for Smoking Protection (CUSP)--a coalition of city agencies and residents.

City councillors appeared skeptical of the proposal.

Vice Mayor Sheila T. Russell said she has not yet decided how she will vote.

"I'm an avid non-smoker," she said in an interview yesterday. "However, I don't want to put anyone out of business."

"Restaurants are a big business in Cambridge," Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves '72 said in an interview. "Of course, health is too."

"We need it to be more regional," Reeves added. "It doesn't make sense for Cambridge to have something radically different [from other cities in the area]. I don't support the ordinance."

Russell said the council was equally undecided: "It sounds like everybody's still fluctuating on it."

The proposal will be referred to the council's ordinance committee, as it would change part of the municipal code. A council vote on the ordinance is expected late next month.

The proposed ordinance also aims to attack youth access to tobacco. It would require all tobacco vendors to purchase a sale permit from the city and to require proof of age before selling cigarettes. Current law only requires vendors to register with the state.

But despite the bill's public-health slant, Clifford and his supporters argued that any smoking restrictions should only be made on the state or federal level.

"You have to answer to the needs of the customers," said Patrick Bowe, owner of the Harvest Restaurant in Harvard Square. The proposed law "puts us in a less competitive position, making it more difficult for us to survive," Bowe added.

Other restaurateurs said the proposal is unrealistic.

"This is still a city of working-class and middle-class people," said George Ravanis, owner of Frank's Steak House. "The real world is not the People's Republic of Cambridge. The working people of Cambridge have earned the right to enjoy their time in their own way."

Helena G. Rees, public-affairs director of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that the town of Chicopee last week revoked its ban on smoking in public places. "We have to be on a level playing field," she added. "We have to be a good competitor with Boston."

Clifford organized a petition drive with more than 5,000 signatures, urging the council to maintain the current laws. In addition, more than 1,000 letters have been sent to City Hall opposing the restrictions.

While not one speaker argued in favor of the proposal, its authors said they weren't surprised.

"We had no plans to speak today," said Kate Dempsey, CUSP coordinator and tobacco-control manager for the city's Department of Human Services.

Dempsey said the health risks associated with smoking provide a compelling reason for the proposal's enactment.

"None of the restaurateurs are talking about the health issues," Dempsey said. She noted that female workers exposed to second-hand smoke are four times as likely to die from lung cancer.

Republican Cutbacks

The council also held a public hearing which drew more than 150 Cantabrigians to discuss cutbacks in social services proposed by Republicans in the House of Representatives.

City officials evaluated two possible cutbacks: a major consolidation of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs into three block grants and possible rescissions of funds granted to the city. A rescission is the reneging of a federal pledge to grant money for a specific purpose.

"It's clear that things in Washington will change," Healy said at the beginning of the hearing. "It will be a different world both in health and human services and in housing for years to come."

In particular, the HUD consolidation--which President Clinton submitted in November--would mean less funding for affordable housing in Cambridge.

The city's success at winning a disproportionately large share of federal funding may prove to hurt the city, as Republicans in Congress insist on a balanced federal budget.

City officials largely condemned the Republican proposals.

"The Contract with America is really a Mafia or execution-type contract," Daniel J. Wuenschel, executive director of the Cambridge Housing Authority, told the council.

In addition, the consolidation may hurt privately-financed affordable housing projects since rental subsidy would be reduced.

In a dramatic statement, Dr. John G. O'Brien '72, the new city commissioner for health and hospitals, said that the city's public health-care system would be destroyed if all Republican proposals were implemented.

"The combination of the Contract with America and the closing of the budget deficit would lead to the closing of Cambridge Hospital," the city's only public hospital, O'Brien said.

"Even in the best scenario, we are not going to support our current services," O'Brien added.

The commissioner recommended that the city take a two-fold response to cuts. Cambridge must "be very creative in minimizing the damage," O'Brien said.

In addition, he said the council must reach "a consensus" on where cuts would be made given that additional tax support is not possible.

But several city councillors criticized the hospital's continuing $60 million expansion project.

"I don't see how we could continue spending any money on the expansion of the hospital until we get a clear idea of what's happening in Washington," Councillor Michael A. Sullivan said.

The city might be left "with a $60 million building standing there vacant," Sullivan warned.

O'Brien disagreed. "It's important for Cambridge Hospital to develop facilities in order to make it competitive with other hospitals," the commissioner said. He said the advanced care and free access offered by the hospital make it less vulnerable to cuts.

Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55 sounded one of the few optimistic notes.

"The premiere place of the Cambridge hospital may save it with the state and the Democratic administration," he said in an interview. "It may be one of the few that can make it. We should not give up so quickly."

The council will await further House action before issuing any recommendation, Healy said.