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Choke Hold

Local Matters


Published October 22, 2003 at 6:02 p.m.

In the time it takes to finish reading this column, a nonsmoker somewhere in the United States will die from past exposure to secondhand smoke. If the deceased happens to be a Vermonter, there's a good chance he or she once worked as a bartender, chef, waitress, musician or live entertainer.

Colin McCaffrey is a 35-year-old musician from East Montpelier who resolved not to become one of those statistics. Earlier this year, McCaffrey chose to sacrifice a substantial portion of his income and quit the smoky-bar circuit. Like a growing number of his fellow musicians and entertainers, McCaffrey is backing legislation to make all Vermont bars smoke-free. To make it a reality, he and about a dozen other Vermont musicians recently played a benefit concert at the Barre Opera House.

What made up McCaffrey's mind were two gigs he played in smoke-filled bars on St. Patrick's Day -- the first at Nectar's in Burlington and the second at Charlie O's in Montpelier. After just five hours of performing, the effect on his health was apparent. "It was horrendous," McCaffrey recalls. "The next day I had instant laryngitis and a lung infection for two weeks. And I couldn't sing or talk for a week and a half. It really blew me out."

Stories like McCaffrey's aren't uncommon among folks who earn a living in bars, clubs, bowling alleys and other smoke-friendly establishments. And no wonder. Waitresses and bartenders who pull eight-hour shifts breathe the equivalent of half a pack ofcigarettes -- increasing by about 50 percent their risk of heart disease, lung cancer or some other slow and painful death. Al-though Vermont passed The Clean Indoor Air Act in 1993, the law included a "cabaret exemption" allowing smoking in restaurants and bars that earn more than 50 percent of their revenues from music and booze. That's a loophole, say many bar workers, big enough to drive a hearse through.

"It's kind of scary coughing up brownish mucus just from hanging out in a bar," complains one Burlington-area waitress, who asked not to be identified. Like other workers in the food-service sector, this woman doesn't receive health benefits and only works in a bar to cover her living expenses until she finishes college. But she says she's reluctant to voice her health complaints to her boss -- or speak publicly in favor of repealing the cabaret exemption -- out of fear of losing her job. A Burlington bartender who initially expressed an interest in speaking publicly on the issue also backed off, saying she didn't want to "bite the hand that feeds me."

Musicians have it somewhat better. As independent contractors, they can pick and choose where they work, though there are far fewer options for musicians who will only play smoke-free venues. Corey Gottfried, who's been a professional entertainer for more than 30 years, is one of them.

"To this day, I try to steer away from environments that are smoke-filled," says Gottfried, who quit the bar scene after 20 years to work as a DJ at weddings and private functions, most of which are held in smoke-free banquet halls. At the time, Gottfried estimates, the decision cost him about 80 percent of his income. But the improvement in his health paid off. "When I was working the clubs, I'd get sick a whole lot more. I know my immune system was weaker," he says.

"However, if smoking were banned in nightclubs I would probably go back to it," Gottfried adds. "It would encourage me to put another band together and play original music, which is my dream."One commonly-held perception, especially among club owners, is that repealing the cabaret exemption would be the death knell for taverns and bars. But past revenue figures -- both in Vermont and elsewhere -- simply don't bear out the veracity of that assumption. According to statistics from the Vermont Department of Taxes, passage of Vermont clean indoor air legislation in 1993 showed no detrimental impact on meal or alcohol revenues. And several studies conducted in California and Delaware, both of which went entirely smoke-free, show no adverse impact on their restaurant and bar revenues either. In fact, California's restaurant industry, which initially opposed the legislation, soon recognized its economic benefits: an upsurge in the number of nonsmokers now visiting their establishments.

A poll just released by the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont strongly suggests the state's bars could reap similar benefits. The poll of 400 randomly selected Vermon-ters showed that more than two-thirds of residents support making bars smoke-free -- a response that was consistent across political, economic and age lines. Perhaps most interesting, the poll also found that more than 80 percent of respondents said they would go to bars more often if they were smoke-free.

Such findings come as no surprise to McCaffrey. "I have a suspicion that bars will actually gain more clientele as it becomes more a community atmosphere without the tobacco," McCaffrey says. "I would love it if we got back to the concept of a pub -- a public house -- where you'd even feel comfortable taking your kids in with you to hang out and listen to music, the way it is in Europe."

Two bills to make Vermont bars smoke-free are pending in the Vermont Legislature. Perhaps when state lawmakers come back in January they'll serve the people who serve them with a well-deserved breather.

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