By JOHN FLOWERS
December 9, 2004
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Health Officer Dr. Robert LaFiandra said he will soon mount an effort to have Middlebury join a small number of Vermont towns that have banned smoking in bars and restaurants.
“It’s a public health matter,” LaFiandra, a local physician, said. “I intend to pursue it.”
LaFiandra is currently reviewing smoking ban ordinances that are in effect in Burlington and South Burlington. Williston and Winooski residents have also taken steps to make their towns smoke-free.
After completing his research, LaFiandra said he will approach the Middlebury selectboard — which also serves as the town’s board of health — to request a local ordinance banning smoking in bars and restaurants. He expects to make the request soon after the first of the year.
“It’s very much a theoretical plan, at this point,” LaFiandra said.
If selectmen do not adopt a smoking ban ordinance, LaFiandra said he would consider bringing the issue before voters at town meeting next March. He would need to gather the signatures of 5 percent of Middlebury’s 4,576 registered voters (230 names) to make a smoking ban part of the town meeting warning.
Vermont restaurants may currently offer smoking if they possess a “cabaret license.” Those licenses permit smoking in restaurants that have segregated, well-ventilated smoking areas.
There are a handful of restaurants and bars in Middlebury that continue to offer separate smoking areas. Operators of some of those restaurants said they would happily conform to a smoking ban that treats all eateries equally.
“If all (restaurants) did it, I don’t think it would hurt business at all,” said Vanessa Riena, general manager of Mister Ups Restaurant. “I wouldn’t fight it at all.’
Riena added that some regular family customers of Mister Ups have been asking when the restaurant would convert to no smoking. A town ordinance could provide some added impetus.
“I’m not a smoker, and obviously, I would enjoy working in a smoke-free environment,” Riena said.
Holmes Jacobs, a co-owner of Two Brothers Tavern, said he wouldn’t be upset by municipal smoking ban. Like Mister Ups, Two Brothers has been carrying a cabaret license in order to not lose clientele who are smokers.
“Frankly, I’m surprised that Middlebury hasn’t decided to do this sooner, after Burlington did it,” Jacobs said. “We knew (a smoking ban ordinance) was on its way.”
While Jacobs realizes the ban could cost him business from smokers, he believes such a loss could be offset by non-smokers who decide to give Two Brothers a try.
LaFiandra is pleased to hear support from local businesses about a proposed smoking ban.
“(Restaurants) would just as soon do it, but not unilaterally,” LaFiandra said.
This is not the first time LaFiandra has sought to clamp down on tobacco use in Middlebury.
In 1999, he advocated publishing, in the town report, the names of local businesses that did not voluntarily stop selling tobacco by 2000. Selectmen did not endorse that effort, fearing it would force tobacco-selling businesses to wear a symbolic — and potentially libelous — “scarlet letter.” State and federal laws currently do not preclude drug stores and other retailers from selling tobacco.
LaFiandra said he continues to believe that tobacco products should not be sold in Middlebury, but realizes the difficulty of legislating such an all-encompassing ban.
“Those are Don Quixote-type thoughts,” he said.
And while LaFiandra has support from some local restaurateurs in his latest smoking ban proposal, he may need to rally some additional troops to his cause.
“While we see these efforts going on around us on a spotty basis… we have not had any resident or business owner come to the selectboard and make a request on this issue,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said.
He explained that the selectboard has tried to stick with prevailing state rules and policies when it comes to the private sector.
“We have not tried to step in and exercise additional controls,” Tenny said. “I don’t know if the board would be immediately interested in taking this up.”
The Vermont Department of Health (DOH) has not advocated a statewide smoking ban for restaurants and bars, such as that which is in effect in New York. But the department is providing information and guidance to communities that are considering such initiatives on the local level.
“The health department certainly supports clean air policies and local communities taking their own action to provide clean air for their workers,” said Moira Cook, tobacco control chief for the DOH.
“It’s a local control issue.”