After breathing smoke-free air for more than a year, some bar owners in Oak Bluffs just can't stand it anymore. They want the smokers back, and they're pressing the board of health to reverse the ban that's been in effect since April 2001.
The issue comes before the board Wednesday at 4 p.m. in town hall, just seven weeks after Oak Bluffs voters sent a loud message at annual town meeting that they want to keep bars smoke-free.
But barkeepers along Circuit avenue say the smoking ban has taken money out of their cash registers and shoved the problem out onto the street, where smokers gather and cigarette butts accumulate.
"A number of my customers have asked me to get smoking back into the Lampost," said Peter Martell, who owns both the Lampost and The Rare Duck. "With the ban, people don't smoke less. What they're doing is going out on the sidewalk."
Five years ago, boards of health across the Island banned smoking in restaurants, but let bars remain the last bastion for smokers. Last year, both Edgartown and Oak Bluffs extended the ban to bars, creating what tobacco prevention officials called an "even playing field" between the two towns where alcohol is served.
Next week's vote will be the second time in a year that the board of health in Oak Bluffs has reconsidered the ban. Bar owners came to the board last May with a similar request, but health officials kept the ban in place.
This go-around could be different. While board of health member Bill White wants to keep the smoking ban in bars, the two other board members could decide to let smokers back in. Chairman Joe Alosso has said he believes the ban is overstepping the board of health's mandate. The swing vote will likely fall to newcomer Sari Budrow.
But at least one selectman is planning a counter-attack that could take the smoking issue away from the health board. Selectman Ken Rusczyk, an adamant foe of smoking, said he is preparing a town bylaw for consideration at the special town meeting June 18 that would ask voters to put the ban on town lawbooks.
"The voters spoke loudly and clearly at the annual town meeting. They don't want smoking in the bars," said Mr. Rusczyk. "The whole health of a town cannot revolve around one person who owns a bar."
To lift the ban, he said, "would be a horrible step backwards."
But bar owners in Oak Bluffs are also upset about what they perceive as an uneven playing field within the bounds of their town.
In Oak Bluffs, the board of health has voted to let private clubs - the Portuguese-American Club and the VFW (Post 9261) - keep on smoking. Janet King-Stead, owner of the Ritz Cafe, argues that this exemption gives the clubs an unfair advantage.
"I've lost probably $200 to $300 a day. The whole after-work crowd. If it's a public health issue, it should extend to the private clubs," said Mrs. King-Stead.
Bar owners say the VFW is not enforcing membership rules, allowing entrance to anyone who comes to the door. Last year, selectman Richard Combra called for better scrutiny at the VFW, but the issue has never been raised again at a selectmen's meeting.
Meanwhile, Mrs. King-Stead is trying to recoup lost revenue by bringing food back to her bar. Even if the ban were lifted, she wouldn't go back to smoking. "I'm very happy to be breathing clean air," she said.
But she believes that if it's an issue of public health, the ban should be applied across the board, whether the place is a private club or not.
Michael Santoro, owner of the Atlantic Connection, would also welcome the end of the smoking ban. While the economic impact has been slight, he said the sidewalks are now jammed with smokers. His club, he added, could easily accommodate smokers on the second floor balcony.
The prospect of Oak Bluffs opening its bar doors to smokers again could have a domino effect, putting pressure on Edgartown health officials to ease the rules in their town.
"If Oak Bluffs went back to having smoking, Edgartown would probably want to do the same," said Lee-Ann Yeddo, manager at David Ryan's on Water street. "They're not going to want to lose the bar business."
Edgartown health agent Matt Poole said the effort last year to rid bars of second-hand smoke was built around a regional commitment. "That was clearly our goal, and we accomplished it for a period of time," said Mr. Poole.