Put away the nicotine patch. Smokers who thought they were about to be pushed out of every bar on the Island may soon find friendly tobacco turf in Oak Bluffs.
In a unanimous vote this week, Oak Bluffs selectmen formally urged the board of health to reconsider its decision to ban smoking in what is now the last bastion for folks who want to light up.
The ban, also approved by the Edgartown board of health, was supposed to go into effect July 1, but Oak Bluffs selectmen are worried that the policy will drive smokers - some of them intoxicated - out onto the narrow sidewalks of Circuit avenue.
"The smoking area [for the bars] will become our sidewalks," said selectman Richard Combra at this week's regular meeting. "What is the impact of patrons coming onto the sidewalk, blocking people who have to pass through all the smoke?"
Board of health chairman Joe Alosso, reelected last week after a campaign that included promises to revisit this issue, picked up the same theme as he assured selectmen that his board would comply with the request.
"We may have made this decision in a vacuum. There may be some flaws," he said. "I envision my kids going out for ice cream at seven at night when there are people outside the bars where they've been drinking. Is this what's right for the town?"
Economics also played a role. Selectman Ken Rusczyk said yesterday in a telephone interview that board members had to consider the impact on tourism. "The bottom of Circuit avenue is the gateway to our town," he said. "If people who just consumed alcohol are hanging around, the perception of tourists will be, ‘What kind of town is this?' "
To selectman Michael Dutton, the board's action was a matter of weighing two evils. "Improvement to public health," he said, "could actually create a public safety hazard, causing pedestrians to walk in the street."
Pressure from bar owners and managers upset by the ban has been building. Tuesday night, Peter Martell, owner of the Lampost and Rare Duck, and Michael Santoro, owner of Season's Pub, turned out for the discussion.
The only one arguing to keep the ban in place was Ronald Tolin, director and enforcement officer for the Martha's Vineyard Tobacco Control Program, who tried to convince selectmen that the smoking ban would not result in hordes of smokers gathering on Circuit avenue. "I called towns that have this ban - on the Cape, in Hyannis and in New Bedford - and there have been no such problems, no difference in loitering and no impact on the town," he said.
Later in a telephone interview, Mr. Tolin expressed regret that selectmen are balking at the health initiative. "We had thought an Island-wide initiative would make a level playing field," he said. "There would be no jealousy, and it would be an equitable solution to second-hand smoke."
Both Mr. Tolin and Edgartown health agent Matt Poole said the action taken in Oak Bluffs would not influence Edgartown leaders to follow suit. "I think Edgartown understands the ramifications of second-hand smoke," said Mr. Tolin.
"This won't have a ripple effect here," said Mr. Poole. "This is clearly within our jurisdiction."
Back in Oak Bluffs, though, selectmen's decision has thrown the board of health into a quandary. With the death of board member Russell Combra in March, the two-member board is now evenly split on this question. Health board member William White is adamant about keeping the ban in place.
"I look at protecting the public health. Bartenders call me and say, ‘We can't say anything because of who we work for,' " he said. "Why make them work in a toxic environment?"
But Mr. White conceded that the decision to ban smoking in bars will likely be reversed as soon as selectmen can fill the seat left vacant on the board of health. "Based on what happened [this week], they will probably pick someone who would overturn the smoking regulation," he said. "It's a fait accompli."
Over at The Ritz Cafe, co-owner Janet King-Stead also changed her tune. In anticipation of the ban, she had promised to make her bar smoke-free after a spring cleaning earlier this month. But even while claiming that her lungs needed the break, she quickly backed down from the ban, relegating smokers to the room with the pool table.
"We had no business," said bartender Cindy Rockwood. "It really did have a big effect."