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Propagandists on either side of the proposed D.C. smoking-ban controversy tend to frame the debate one of two ways: Some say it’s a public-health concern; others argue that it’s a matter of civil liberties.
Local party promoter and anti-smoking-ban activist Mark Lee spins it a bit differently. “This is really about sucking dick,” he says.
What’s a little fellatio got to do with the fight over your right to light up inside your favorite watering hole? As Sigmund Freud is credited with saying, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
But to Lee, the effort to keep area boozehounds blazing away in D.C. bars recalls another struggle over arguably risky behavior. That is, the plight of homosexuals living under laws against sodomy. As chief organizer of downtown nightspot 1223’s weekly gay-themed dance party Lizard Lounge, Lee finds it ironic that so many of his own constituents seem to miss that connection. “It’s the same thing,” he says. “People don’t want government telling them what to do. And they don’t think that government should have the right to do that. And, you know, if you don’t wanna suck dick, you don’t have to. And if you don’t wanna smoke cigarettes or be around cigarettes, you don’t have to. They’re options for people.”
The options for those who suck on cancer sticks, at least, appear to be dwindling, following the D.C. Council’s 11-to-1 passage of a bill on Jan. 4 that would do away with ashtrays in such traditionally tobacco-friendly hangouts as bars and nightclubs. A pair of narrow exception clauses in the bill would allow “cigar bars” and clubs that prove “economic hardship” to avoid the ban. Although Mayor Anthony A. Williams has concerns about the bill, the council’s support is so overwhelming that the Washington Post declared in a headline, “Smoking Ban Looks Unstoppable in District.”
Yet to hear Lee tell it, the mandatory smoke-out is anything but inevitable. “THE FIGHT FOR…HOSPITALITY FREEDOM OF CHOICE and NIGHTLIFE SURVIVAL…IS NOT OVER!” reads a Jan. 16 mass e-mail from Lee’s party-marketing group, Atlas Events.
The matter is something of a personal crusade for the 49-year-old graphic designer and longtime hospitality-industry stalwart, who’s been a smoker since his early 20s. Not that he quickly lets on. When S&T met up with Lee at 1223 on Jan. 22, it took at least 20 minutes of smoking-ban banter for the openly pro-tobacco club honcho to “feel comfortable enough” to break out his half-empty pack of charcoal-filtered Lark cigarettes.
“I don’t like those two things to be confused,” he says on the separation of personal use and political activism. “It’s known that I smoke. I don’t think it’s an issue. My political position on this issue is not a matter of personal convenience. It’s a business decision, and it’s a decision about what’s right and what’s wrong about supporting individual freedoms, business owners’ freedoms to set policies at their establishments, and the opportunities and restrictions among their customers in the marketplace.”
Selective presentation of information, it seems, is just part of the promoter’s MO.
For months, Lee has tried to turn public opinion against the proposed smoking ban by bombarding policymakers, members of the media, and anyone who’ll sign up with regular e-mails, which he calls “Nightlife Action Alerts.” The aim of Lee’s frequent missives, which reach a list of “less than 20,000” inboxes, he says, is to counter the rhetoric of health-advocacy groups and do-gooder politicos—not to mention clear up the fuzzy objectivity of on-the-fence reporters—who threaten local bargoers’ ability to avoid fresh air while inhaling carcinogenic fumes. “We want our materials to be timely, persuasive, satisfactorily argumentative, and filled with relevant information,” Lee says.
As for the information deemed irrelevant, well, Lee replaces that stuff with ellipses. Like so many Hollywood movie-marketers who take snippets from boosterish film critic Joel Siegel, Lee seems to be a pretty big fan of the delete button.
His electronic advisory from June 21, 2005, for instance, featured several excerpts from a rather balanced Washington Post story on the smoldering controversy. Bar owner Al Jirikowic’s comment about being “scared” at the prospect of how a no-smoking rule might impact his Chief Ike’s Mambo Room made it into the e-mail; so did the Restaurant Association of Maryland’s reported reduction in keg sales following a similar ban in Montgomery County.
Not included: Post reporter Eric M. Weiss’ riff about the spread of smoking bans nationwide, as well as his citing of government studies in New York and Massachusetts showing no significant downturn in post-ban bar business. And Montgomery County official Dennis Theoharis’ point about an increase in liquor licenses since the ban? Similarly junked.
The alerts tend to be “very slanted,” says Lee’s nemesis, Angela Bradbery, co-founder of nonprofit tobacco-prohibition group Smokefree DC. Of course, that kind of bias probably comes with the territory. “He is an advocate,” says Bradbery, who’s become quite familiar with the messages over the past few years. “I get them in triplicate,” she says.
Lee’s advocacy is by no means a one-man show. He often works in tandem with other industry activists, including D.C. Licensed Beverage Association Executive Director Frederic Harwood and Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington Executive Director Lynne Breaux. Funds for the coalition’s activities come from local bar and restaurant owners and, according to Lee, “even employees who’ve contributed their tips.” The lobby occasionally gets a helpful hand from the local media, too. In 2004, for instance, the Washington City Paper donated ad space for the campaign. In 2005, the group paid for a series of full-page ads opposing the smoking ban with the ominous tagline “BARS CLOSE.” Similar ads also appeared in the Washington Blade and Metro Weekly.
For much of 2005, however, the lobby’s rants against anti-smoking forces seemed almost like overkill.
Although the council had gone through several exhaustive debates on the issue since 2003, the legislation never came to a vote in former smoker and Republican Councilmember Carol Schwartz’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment.
“There are a lot of people who were like, ‘Well, it’s never gonna happen.’ Both patrons and business owners,” Lee concedes. “When it had been essentially defeated before, there was a lot of suspended disbelief whether the city would be reckless enough to do this.”
Enter Independent Councilmember David Catania, who introduced a redrafted bill last fall and moved it speedily through his own Committee on Health. In a flash, the bill was sailing toward passage, much to Lee’s dismay. In the weeks since Catania’s bill passed, Lee has sought to cast the council’s action as “outside the national mainstream.” But even the promoter’s own interpretation of the statistics don’t support that view. “In the United States, there are fourteen (14) states with state laws currently in effect that require 100% smokefree workplaces,” Lee wrote on Jan. 10. “Of those, only eight (8) states…require 100% smokefree bars.”
In other words, most of them do.
Bradbery suggests that it’s Lee who’s outside the mainstream. “I think most people disagree with him,” she says.
Nonetheless, the Internet-savvy promoter clings to hope that Williams will soon stop the madness. Williams has until Jan. 30 to either endorse the ban, let it pass into law unsigned, or veto the legislation, sending it back to the council. “We are strongly encouraging him to veto it, and we’re optimistic that, based on his public statements, he will do so,” says Lee.
Mayoral spokesperson Vince Morris isn’t giving the promoter much of an indication one way or the other. “There’s a reason he hasn’t signed it yet,” says Morris. “He thinks there should be a couple of small exceptions.”
Then again, bargoers’ consumption habits aren’t exactly the mayor’s primary concern these days. “He might also just decide to sign it,” says Morris. “There’s a lot of things on his plate right now.” —Chris Shott
Show & Tell departs this week on a long-term smoking-ban research trip to New York. Send tips to email@example.com.