The last safe haven for smokers is about to become enemy territory. Come July, bars on Martha's Vineyard are pulling up their ashtrays and hanging up signs that spell it out - no smoking.
The action taken last month by boards of health in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs closes a loophole left open in 1997 when towns passed laws banning smoking in Island restaurants. Bars were exempt from those laws, but no longer.
"It's about public health and protecting the rights of nonsmokers," said Ronald Tolin, director and enforcement officer for the Martha's Vineyard Tobacco Control Program. "People who work in bars are two to two-and-a-half times more susceptible to getting lung cancer and heart disease because of the effects of second-hand smoke."
Edgartown's health agent Matt Poole said, "Bartenders and wait staff in a smoking establishment might as well be smokers themselves. From a workplace perspective, bars were the only environment that was unregulated and the only public place where it was still allowed."
The laws will also cover private clubs such as the Edgartown Yacht Club and Portuguese American Club in Oak Bluffs.
Not surprisingly, bar owners and managers object to the new law, some citing their investment four years ago to install costly air ventilation systems. Others simply worry it will hurt business. But not all owners are crying foul. Janet King-Stead, co-owner of the The Ritz Cafe in Oak Bluffs, is actually welcoming the change by instituting the policy beginning in April.
"My lungs could use the break," said Mrs. King-Stead, who will close down the bar for a week of spring clean-up and painting and then reopen April 1 with a smoke-free policy in full effect. "I want to get everybody ready. Already the Ritz gets so smoky, and so many people complain about it."
The decision also comes as a relief to bartender Stephanie Devine. "I'll go home with my clothes smelling good," she said. And it's good news for musician Pinto Abrams, one of the lead men in the Ritz's house band, 2nd Power. "It's like a dream come true to be able to play at the The Ritz without second-hand smoke," he said. "It really is quite bad."
Indeed, Tuesday afternoon around five, the place was filled with patrons knocking back and lighting up. One man guessed that 80 per cent of the clientele are smokers. Some were alarmed to hear about the ban. "I'm not going to come in here and have a beer if I can't have a cigarette," one said. "It goes together, beer and cigarettes."
Caleb Caldwell called the new law a form of "madness." While not smoking himself, Mr. Caldwell, the owner of the Oak Bluffs restaurant, Zapotec, said, "Not being able to have smoke and food in the same place was regulation enough. I call it too much government."
Whether the ban hurts business remains to be seen. "At first I thought I would lose people," said Mrs. King-Stead, "but I think it's going to even out." At a public hearing last November, seasonal resident Dan Guttro said that when bars and restaurants in Maine and on the Cape banned smoking, their business increased.
But for bar owners who put money into ventilation systems, the new ban can only turn up in the loss column.
"We're not pleased with what's going on. We put an inordinate amount of money into a system that's all for naught," said Stuart Myers, manager at David Ryan's in Edgartown. "We moved a stairwell and had to create new doors. I understand they're looking out for people's health but if somebody wants to smoke, it's their right."
Over at the Harbor View Hotel, the expense to ventilate a cigar bar was calculated at about $60,000. "We spent a considerable amount of money to to have a controlled environment you could smoke in," said Richard McAuliffe, general manager of the hotel. "We complied with all the standards. Had we known that other changes would take place, we probably would not have made that capital expenditure. Now, it's so long to the Carlos Fuentes Cigar Bar."
Mr. Myers predicted one effect of the new law will be trouble on the sidewalks. "People will start congregating in front of the bar," he said. "It will increase the chance of alcohol being taken out of the building, and people will be throwing cigarette butts into the street."
In some towns in the state, bans have gone so far as to prohibit smoking within 15 feet of an entranceway, according to Mr. Tolin. "We'll be asking everyone as a courtesy to move to the side of the entrance," he said. "And littering will be an issue for the town to enforce."
But enforcing the ban will be Mr. Tolin's job. Bars that violate the new law will get slapped with a $100 fine for the first offense, $200 for the second and $300 for the third. After that, the board of health can begin suspending operating licenses for two days at a time.
And Island bars are not alone in living under stricter tobacco laws. Last summer, 10 of the 15 towns on the Cape banned smoking in bars, and Nantucket is moving ahead with a similar bylaw, according to Mr. Tolin.
In Oak Bluffs, though, the issue could lead to a political fight. Already, board of health member William White said he is facing heavy lobbying from the Portuguese American Club for an exemption to the ban. But Mr. White said he is not bending to the pressure. "People are calling me and sending me letters, but I'm getting all this information about the carcinogens in second-hand smoke," he said. "We can regulate them, and they are not exempt. This is about public health. I'm not popular, but someone has to take responsibility."