It was a victory for bar owners in Oak Bluffs and patrons who prefer a nicotine chaser with their drinks. Smoking is back.
The Oak Bluffs board of health reversed the smoking ban this week by a 2-1 vote, making their decision effective immediately and ending, at least for now, the year-long exile of smokers forced onto the sidewalks of Circuit avenue if they want to light up.
The bar smoke emancipated in Oak Bluffs could blow over to Edgartown, where some bar owners have said they would demand an end to their town's smoking ban to keep the two Island towns where alcohol flows on an even playing field.
The reprieve for smokers, however, could be short-lived. Voters in Oak Bluffs will decide on June 18 at a special town meeting whether to back a bylaw proposal that would again make it illegal to smoke in bars in town.
But in Oak Bluffs on Wednesday, the issue sat squarely with the board, and the focus was entirely on Circuit avenue. Board of health members who voted to allow smoking in bars argued that the ban has turned the town's main street into an ashtray.
"The [cigarette] butts are a major problem, and so is the language you hear," said Joe Alosso, chairman of the board of health. "They've taken the bar atmosphere and put it in the street."
Not surprisingly, bar owners welcomed the news. "My customers are happy," said Peter Martell, owner of the Lampost and the Rare Duck, who lobbied to eliminate the ban.
Anti-tobacco activists said they are appalled. "The board made an astoundingly unhealthy decision," said selectman Ken Rusczyk, an ardent opponent of smoking. "It kind of blows my mind that this is the one body in town charged with maintaining the health and welfare of its citizens."
Richard Skidmore, chairman of the Martha's Vineyard Tobacco Control Program and a member of Aquinnah's board of health, said, "This vote by two members of the board of health goes against the will of the townspeople expressed at a recent town meeting, and it goes against public health, which is absurd."
At the Oak Bluffs annual town meeting two months ago, voters made a nonbinding recommendation that the board of health keep bars smoke-free. Responding to two separate proposals, voters instructed the board of health to uphold smoking bans in both restaurants and bars. Moderator David Richardson did not call for a tally of votes on either article.
Addressing a third proposal that dealt with smoking regulations, residents voted 105 to 65 to allow smoking in private clubs such as the Portuguese-American Club and VFW Post 926.
Mr. Alosso this week frequently referred to the April town meeting action as a close vote. "I think we got a very mixed message," he said. "I'm not convinced it went the way the moderator said."
To his way of thinking, Mr. Alosso said, the vote on private clubs really defined how townspeople stand on the issue of smoking. "I don't believe the town voted on a public health issue," the chairman said, reading from a one-page typed statement. "If they did, they would have banned smoking everywhere."
But fellow board member Bill White staked out opposite ground. "The townspeople voted to have no smoking in the bars," he said. "Based on what they say, that's my take on it. Our mandate is to protect the public health."
Mr. Rusczyk said he is convinced that voters will affirm their earlier no-smoking stance and put clean air back in the town bars. But you can expect Mr. Alosso to argue against any bylaw that infringes on smokers and sends them back to the sidewalks.
"As adults, we should be able to choose," he said.
Mr. Alosso also charged that the impact of so many smokers standing outside bar entrances had damaged the family character of Circuit avenue.
It was quickly apparent at Wednesday's meeting that health board member Sari Budrow would be the tie-breaker. She disclosed that while she is a smoker, she was also disturbed by the spillover effect.
"You have a ton of people outside the Ritz and Lampost," said Ms. Budrow. "I actually saw an ash land on a kid's ice cream. That's more detrimental to the town and the tourists. I'd rather see the people inside than outside on the street."
In the end, Mr. White cast the dissenting vote. Mr. Alosso said the ban would be lifted immediately and made it clear that it extended to bars only, not restaurants or any place where children might have access.
Michael Santoro, owner of the Atlantic Connection, who attended the meeting, said afterward that he would allow smoking there on the upper balcony level only.
Ritz Cafe owner Janet King-Stead also wanted to repeal the smoking ban, but she has already decided to serve food in her bar and keep the smokers outside.
Mrs. King-Stead objected to the unfair policy in town which allowed private clubs to permit smoking, but then failed to enforce rules that required membership to gain entrance, especially at the VFW.
But while voters in Oak Bluffs wait for their next chance to consider smoking regulations, the other question is whether the repeal, however long it endures, will spur a similar move in Edgartown.
Elizabeth Carlson, a manager at David Ryan's, a bar in Edgartown, said yesterday that she expects bar owners to ask the board of health to reconsider the ban. "We need to be on the same level ground, Islandwide," she said. "If our business drops off drastically, it will hurt us in the long run."
But Edgartown health agent Matt Poole bluntly told the Gazette yesterday that "it's not an option."
Mr. Rusczyk put the issue in a wider focus. "The last thing we want to do is be a town that's reversing a good policy."