Bars in Middlebury go smoke-free this Saturday, just as the Vermont Legislature takes final action on an even broader smoking ban.
Local residents have expressed overwhelming support for the Middlebury measure. They voted 706-200 on Town Meeting Day in favor of a proposal to stub out smoking in bars open to the public. The six-member Select Board then unanimously enacted the ordinance.
Because Middlebury is the first town outside the Burlington area to take such a step, its move has had an important influence on lawmakers' attitudes, says Laura Parkinson, director of the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Vermont. "Initially," she says, "a lot of legislators thought, 'Oh, it's just Chittenden County. Things are different there.'" Burlington, South Burlington, Williston and Winooski have all forbidden smoking in bars.
Feeling the weight of public opinion, two of the four affected establishments in Middlebury didn't wait for the May 21 deadline to impose their own smoking bans. The bars report no negative effects on business, with many patrons responding positively.
Two Brothers Tavern on Main Street "has gained some new faces, while customers old and new now tend to stay longer than they used to," says general manager Megan Brady.
Mister Up's on Bakery Lane has also come out ahead. "You'll hear some smokers' opinions -- how it isn't right to do this -- but we get a lot more positive comments," says general manager Vanessa Riena.
Bar-going smokers will soon have no choice but to step outside if they want to light up. The Senate is expected to give its approval May 18 to a House-passed bill banning smoking in private clubs as well as in public bars throughout the state. Gov. James Douglas has indicated he will sign the measure, making Vermont the ninth state in the country to enact such a broad ban.
The legislation ends exemptions contained in a 1993 Vermont law that prohibits smoking in restaurants but not in private clubs or in public bars that earn more than half their revenue from liquor sales.
Opponents of the ban on smoking in private establishments argue that the state has no right to supercede rules set by members of private organizations such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and groups such as the Masons and Elks. But supporters of the legislation say the state's duty to protect workers' health should take precedence. The Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Vermont estimates that a bartender working an eight-hour shift inhales the equivalent of 10 cigarettes in the form of second-hand smoke. About 820 Vermonters died last year from smoking-related diseases, the coalition adds.
Two Brothers manager Brady says of her bar's self-imposed smoking ban, "Our employees are thrilled. Even smokers really prefer working in a smoke-free atmosphere."
The Vermont campaign against smoking won't come to an end following the legislature's expected action this week. Next on the agenda, Parkinson says, is an effort to raise the state tax on cigarettes to $1.50 from its current level of $1.19, which would put the price of a pack well over $5.