By Jim Smith
WEST YARMOUTH, MASS. — Bars and restaurants in the mid-Cape area are bracing for new regulations that may make all eating and drinking establishments smoke-free by the spring.
According to Barnstable health agent Tom McKean, a hearing will be held next month in Hyannis to consider swift implementation of the smoking ban.
"We’d like to see the ban in effect by April 3," he said Monday. "It will include all bars, lounges and restaurants in Barnstable."
Yarmouth, which has a high concentration of Irish bars and restaurants, is expected to follow the lead of its larger mid-Cape neighbor. Barnstable has more than 200 bars and restaurants, while Yarmouth has about 90.
Last month, the Yarmouth Board of Health decided to put aside its original plan, which would have allowed restaurants to permit smoking in bar areas separated by a wall from the dining areas. That proposal drew complaints from anti-smokers and some restaurateurs, who said that building walls and reconstructing their premises would be cost-prohibitive and, in the case of some smaller restaurants, virtually impossible to do.
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Smoking in bars is also becoming a contentious issue in Ireland as well. According to the bars’ umbrella body, the Vintners Federation of Ireland, a complete ban on smoking would not work because bar owners and customers would not accept it.
But the health promotion manager of the Irish Heart Foundation, Maureen Mulvihill, said that the 60 percent of pubgoers who told a recent Eastern Health Board survey that they wanted smoke-free areas was an indication that public opinion was recognizing the need for a healthy environment for all.
The feud on Cape Cod over smoking in restaurants has been going on for more than two years in the mid-Cape area. While some of the lower Cape towns such as Orleans, Chatham and Wellfleet adopted anti-smoking rules without much public outcry, the battle in Yarmouth has been nasty.
Nearly two years ago at the Mattacheese Middle School, about 250 Yarmouth residents and business people shouted down a proposed ban on smoking in restaurants.
Tom Murphy, president of the Yarmouth Restaurant Association, said Friday that the long-standing feud has been bitter and divisive.
"We’ve tried to be reasonable, but the tree-huggers and do-gooders won’t listen to logic," he said. "Most of our restaurants already have no-smoking areas and air purifiers. A total ban could literally put some of the smaller places out of business. These decisions should be driven by the market, not by a handful of people with some power."
Among the smaller restaurants that could be seriously hurt by a smoking ban in Yarmouth is Kevin’s Seafood and Spirits, which has been in business for 30 years. Bartender Patty Walsh said that most of her regular customers enjoy a smoke with their drinks and meals.
"We’ve got smoke-blowers in here and we even open the windows in the summer if necessary," she said. "No one’s forced to come in here, and some do leave when they see people smoking. That’s their decision."
At the Irish Village in West Yarmouth, a popular year-round tourist spot that hosts the annual "Taste of Ireland" competition, owner Jack Hynes said that his restaurant has been able to successfully accommodate smokers and non-smokers alike.
"We’re always listening to our customers and we have made some changes for their comfort and enjoyment," he said. "A ban on smoking is not something we want, but it may be only a matter of time before we’re forced to go along with it."
At nearby Molly’s Pub and Restaurant in West Yarmouth, young Irish immigrants and locals have been mingling for years over drinks, cigarettes and a friendly game of darts. Manager Frank Fitzpatrick of Dublin said that the proposed ban on smoking would have a significant impact on his bar business.
"Our restaurant is smoke-free, but a lot of our diners like to go into the pub for a smoke," he said. "For many of our customers a cigarette and a pint go hand in hand."
Health agent McKean disputes the charges of restaurant owners that the anti-smoking movement on the Cape is being driven by a group of busybodies with a lot of time on their hands.
"We feel we have a responsibility to protect the public from the dangers of smoke," he said. "This isn’t just about customers who can come and go where they want. It’s also about waitresses and other employees who are forced to breathe other people’s smoke while they’re trying to make a living."
Recent studies show that about 55,000 U.S. citizens die from cigarette exposure each year.
Although petitions condemning the proposed ban are now circulating throughout Barnstable in advance of next month’s hearing, McKean said that his office is receiving plenty of support from the community. And an editorial in the Cape Cod Times last summer came out in support of a total ban on smoking in all public places Cape-wide.
Séamus O’Hara of County Cork is manager of the Blackrock Grille in West Yarmouth, a restaurant that caters to beef-eaters and cigar smokers.
"We’ve set aside a small area for non-smokers, but most of our patrons like a thick steak and a good cigar," O’Hara said. "Some people wouldn’t be comfortable in a restaurant that sells cigars, but that’s what freedom of choice is all about. That’s why a lot of us came to this country in the first place.
In Ireland, the Irish Heart Foundation’s Mulvihill claimed that smoking killed 6,000 people a year, six times more than auto and work accidents, drugs, murder, suicides and AIDS combined. But she said the timing and type of legislation to regulate smoking needed to be carefully weighed up. A number of initiatives could start immediately to help the public understand all the issues, she said. These could include education and programs to help smokers quit.
Mulvihill said smokers were not criminals and legislation restricting smoking might have to be phased in slowly.
However, VFI Chief Executive Tadhg O’Sullivan said a better solution to the problem of smoky pubs was improved ventilation systems. O’Sullivan said a VFI national trial program would shortly produce recommendations on the best ventilation systems for all sizes of pubs. The systems being studied included air purification, extraction, ventilation and heat exchange options. He said that VFI tests conducted with ventilation companies had shown that cleaner air encourages customers to stay longer, visit more frequently and have enhanced enjoyment of a premises.
"Most pubs don’t have good ventilation at the moment," O’Sullivan said. "We want to change that and are advising our members how to ensure that they get a good job done."
O’Sullivan also said the VFI favored a self-regulatory charter on public smoking. Under the charter, pubs and other public places would place signs outside their doors showing their smoking policies and facilities,A woman enjoys a cigarette in an Irish bar on Cape Cod. Smokling may soon be a thing of the past in Cap restaurants. . . .