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Cambridge Bar Owners Fear Ban Would Hurt Business

A man enjoys a cigarette and a drink at Pizzeria Uno in Harvard Square. His days of smoking in public may be limited, as the City Council vote on an ordinance that bans  smoking in all restaurants and bars approaches.
A man enjoys a cigarette and a drink at Pizzeria Uno in Harvard Square. His days of smoking in public may be limited, as the City Council vote on an ordinance that bans smoking in all restaurants and bars approaches.
By Michael A. Mohammed, Crimson Staff Writer

Marianne Koole, manager of Grendel’s Den, sits at her bar with a drink. Laughing with patrons, she pauses to take a drag from her cigarette, blowing out the smoke slowly and sharply tapping off the ash.

For Koole and fellow smokers, lighting up has long been an integral part of life in Cambridge drinking establishments—but they may soon have to take their habit outside.

If the city council approves a proposed smoking ban this month, Koole and her smoking patrons will be prohibited from satisfying their craving in indoor public areas.

Smoking has been under fire in Massachusetts for the past few years.

Last year, a smoking ban was passed in Boston, and smoking in public spaces is already strictly regulated in Cambridge.

But the new regulation would unequivocally ban smoking in the city’s restaurants and bars.

Local tavern-keepers disagree on how the ban would affect business, but the vast majority strongly oppose the ordinance, saying the proposed ban is an example of unnecessary government intervention and would mean a major logistical headache.

“The government doesn’t have the right to dictate whether I have the right to smoke or whether [an owner] has the right to allow smoking in his bar,” says Ram Mosher, the bartender at Grendel’s Den. “I’ll have to take smoke breaks, and it’ll be a pain.”

Not everyone in Cambridge opposes the ban. Some non-smoking patrons complain about second-hand smoke, and some restaurant employees say the new ordinance would improve their working environment.

But the ban’s fans and opponents do agree on one thing: a prohibition on smoking would drastically change the bar scene in Cambridge.

A Pain in the Butt

The new ordinance would create unnecessary headaches for minimal gains, many local bar owners say.

Patrick Lee, owner of the Grafton Street, Redline and Temple bars, says the current set of smoking rules in Cambridge is both adequate and thoroughly enforced.

“If it’s your business, you deserve a certain amount of autonomy as to how you feel you should run it,” Lee says. “The current ordinance is flexible and works well.”

Koole says bars like Grendel’s Den—which employs three air filters to remove smoke from the air—should continue to regulate themselves.

“You see what is needed and you do it. We’ve been doing a very good job,” Koole says. “People are becoming totally intolerant, and I’m sick of it.”

Allston resident and smoker Tyler Foster, a Rock Bottom patron, bemoans the increasing restrictions on smoking in public spaces.

“Smokers have rights, I guess. I don’t know that they do anymore,” she says. “It’s enough to make me stop smoking.”

But according to Lauren Meany, a bartender at Redline, smokers—many of them students—generate complaints among the bar’s older customers.

“When we fill up on a weekend night, about half of the 200 people in here are smoking. Older clientele complain about the smoke on busy nights,” Meany says.

Unhealthy...for Business?

Whether the ban will affect business in local taverns is unclear, but owners agree that the ordinance will create a slew of logistical problems.

At Grendel’s Den, Koole says the ban could present the problem of people drinking outside.

“We’re going to have a lot of smokers standing outside, and we’ll have to watch to make sure that they don’t bring their drinks out with them,” Koole says. Current city ordinances forbid the consumption of alcohol outdoors.

Rock Bottom patron Trista Kuhn says it will be hard to enjoy her drink without a cigarette in her hand.

“We won’t be able to bring our drinks outside with us, which is annoying because drinking and smoking go hand-in-hand by far,” Kuhn remarks.

Meany predicts that patrons returning from smoke breaks outside Redline will constitute a serious logistical problem—door attendants will have to check IDs multiple times and may have difficulty telling the difference between returning smokers and people waiting to get in.

“I’d assume we’d have to start some kind of stamping system or bracelets or something,” Meany says.

“It’s hard enough having to deal with fake IDs,” agrees Joe Sater, night manager of Central Square’s The Middle East. “How will we be able to enforce a smoking ban as well?”

Sater cited the devastating effects of similar smoking ordinances in other towns.

“I don’t think we can live through this experiment,” he says. “If you look at Brookline, where smokers congregated in the clubs, nightlife doesn’t exist now that a smoking ban has been put into place.”

However Jennifer Anderson, manager of Grafton Street, says she does not think that the ban will hurt business at her establishment.

“There are a lot of people who only smoke when they drink,” she says. “The bulk of smokers would be okay with [the ordinance]—I think a relatively small percentage would be jonesing and need to go outside.”

Some restaurant employees, however, feel that the ordinance will make their jobs more pleasant, and advocates of the ban have received support from workers’ unions. Anderson thinks the ban would represent a positive change in her working environment.

“I’m a non-smoker and would rather be in a nonsmoking environment for health reasons and because of the smell,” Anderson says.

Lee conceded that for some prospective employees, the preponderance of thick smoke could dissuade them from working in a bar.

“It’s possibly true for some people that [having to deal with smoke] is a barrier to entry,” he says, “[but] it’s part of the business.”

—Staff writer Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at mohammed@fas.harvard.edu.

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