Bite Me

We're coming down to the wire. Before old-guard members of the Denver City Council surrender those big, comfy chairs to ten incoming freshmen, they'll almost certainly vote on a proposed smoking ban for this city. Mayor Wellington Webb has made such a ban his top priority before he leaves office July 21, and outgoing councilwoman Allegra "Happy" Haynes has said she's invested too much work in the effort to hand it off to the next council.

Supporters of the ban have been out in force -- carrying signs, sitting in on meetings in council chambers, talking to any available TV camera. The opposition hasn't been nearly as active. Plenty of folks out there in TV land -- both smokers and non -- are pissed off about the pending ordinance, but they have yet to get militant. Granted, it's tough to show a pro-smoking group in a favorable light these days: Smokers are the new minority group that it's socially acceptable to hate. So don't expect to see people gathering in the streets and pelting councilmembers with packs of smokes on their way into the Denver City and County Building.

We all know that smoking is bad. We all know that the odds favor the Grim Reaper. But what irritates me is that we've also become convinced that smokers, as a class, are dumb, redneck, blue-collar dipshits who need to be protected because they're too weak and too stupid to protect themselves. We're asked to swallow the notion that because smoking is proof that smokers make poor lifestyle choices, they shouldn't be allowed to make any choices at all. And smokers everywhere -- myself included -- are not so subtly reminded that they should all be ashamed for lighting up.

But to me, this has never been about smoking. It's about choice, about intrusive legislation, about the new mindset in government that says our elected officials must act as nursemaids -- benignly baby-proofing our world, patting us on the head and saying it's all for our own good.

And if you think that the final vote on the Denver smoking ordinance will be the end of such health-and-welfare legislation, think again. In Britain, they're already looking at boosting taxes on fatty foods to encourage people to eat healthier. This from people who think blood sausage and kidney pie are acceptable breakfast foods. And right here in the U.S. of A., the government is considering a federal law making it illegal to sell soda and junk food at schools. Would it be better if kids ate apples and drank spring water rather than sucking down Coke and Ding Dongs? Absolutely. Do we need a law to make selling them illegal? Absolutely not.

Councilmembers and media types alike have recently been flooded with similar-sounding (and certainly similarly intended) anti-smoking letters from restaurants as divergent in style as Sweet B.O.B.'s BBQ (1 Broadway), Champa Deli (837 16th Street), An's Lemongrass Grille (1617 California Street) and the Sonoda's outlet at 550 Broadway. The only things these places -- around forty at last count, although I've been told to expect about seventy -- have in common are that they're already non-smoking joints, and they all claim to have suffered no adverse business effects since they ordered the nicotine fiends to light up outside.

According to Bonnie Mapes, administrator of tobacco-control programs for Denver Public Health, the mailing campaign was started "to show councilpeople the effect of a smoke-free ordinance" and to prove that "this isn't going to impact the businesses in Denver negatively."

Gotcha, Bonnie. But all of these restaurants are operating in a climate where people have the choice of a smoking or a non-smoking restaurant. Sonoda's, for example, doesn't allow smoking at its new Broadway location, but it does at its double-decker sushi bar at 1620 Market Street. The downstairs dining area there is smoke-free, while in the upstairs bar, customers are free to light up whenever they choose. According to owner Kenny Sonoda, a representative of the Denver Alliance -- aka the Denver Tobacco Intervention and Prevention Project (your tobacco-settlement dollars at work) -- showed up at the LoDo address, prepared a pro-ban letter and asked Sonoda to sign it. Sonoda "didn't want to lie," he says, and requested that the address of the Market Street outpost be changed to the 550 Broadway address.

The letter was redone, the 550 Broadway address was inserted, and Sonoda signed on the dotted line. But he's still not sure how he feels about this city's government dictating what he can and can't allow in his restaurants. "I've been in business for nine years at this location," Sonoda says. "We have a lot of smokers coming. Especially international convention business -- Europeans and Japanese -- and a lot of them are smokers. If I have to take it [the smoking section] out, I think it'll hurt for a time. For the first couple of years, it'll be tough." Hmm....doesn't sound like a glowing endorsement of the proposed smoking ban to me.

Still, other letter signers are more enthusiastic. Tyson Henry says he and a Denver Alliance rep "sat down and wrote the letter together" for the 1875 York Street Le Peep. "The man from the Alliance worded the letter, and I just signed it," says Sweet B.O.B.'s Bruce Harrison, "but because of my daughter, I don't want smoking in my restaurant, anyhow."

Kenton Johnson -- project manager for the letter-writing campaign -- insists that he worked with every restaurant owner who would sit with him to craft a personal letter. "I was like their private secretary for about a half hour each," he says. Asked if there were any non-smoking restaurants that didn't want to sign, he acknowledges that there were a few, but not many. "My job is to do the restaurant ordinance," he adds. "Personally, though, I think a total ban makes sense. Look at it this way: Isn't it illegal to assist someone in suicide? How far do you want to take that?"

According to Mapes, Denver Public Health and the Denver Alliance began the letter campaign because the city agency wanted to offer business owners a voice. "We went to restaurants who'd gone smoke-free already," she says. "And we're working with them to try to get this information to city council."

What about simply letting the market decide, without having government intrude into business? "Our whole point is to protect the health of restaurant and bar workers," Mapes insists. "Already, 70 percent of workers are protected by the current [anti-smoking] ordinance, but not bar and restaurant workers. This is not a choice; it's a worker-health issue. This is not something to be left to the market at this point. Whether it happens sooner or later, it's going to happen."

And she's probably right. Council committees are currently discussing the proposed ordinance, which will be introduced before the full Denver City Council next week.

In the meantime, fellow smokers who want to rally for the cause should head over to LoDo's Bar & Grill (1946 Market Street, 303-293-8555) on June 25. "We are concerned about the health issues, too," says LoDo's Jody Ulrich, "but this is also an economic issue. Everybody, all the restaurant owners, are going to suffer from this." Ulrich assures me that all proceeds from ticket sales will benefit the late-blooming group fighting the smoking ban (currently called Opposition Against the Smoking Ban, naming not being its strong suit). One ticket ($10) gets you an evening of booze tastings, comped cigars, live music, a little anti-ban education and propaganda, and a whole lotta politically motivated hoopla. Plus, even if the effort fails, it's a good way to go out with a bang, right? For tickets, visit LoDo's Bar & Grill or either Havana's Fine Cigars.

Smoking gun: One more tidbit on this topic. The New York Times recently reported that just hours after being named House Majority Whip, Representative Roy Blount tried to sneak a provision regulating sales of over-the-Internet smokes and contraband cigs into the 475-page bill creating the Department of Homeland Security. Blount, a Missouri Republican, has personal ties to tobacco giant Philip Morris, takes large donations from the company and enjoys a relationship of unexplained depth with a Philip Morris lobbyist.

The provision would have been a boon to tobacco companies, which have seen Internet and contraband sales seriously cutting into their profits. And while it was quickly excised from the bill, Blount's smoke-blowing is something to consider the next time you get to thinking government officials have only your best interests at heart.

Leftovers: That capacious smoking area at Racines is no more. In fact, the entire Racines is no more. After twenty years, the restaurant lost its home at 850 Bannock Street, which it finally left for good in the early hours of June 8. Look for a brand-new Racines at 660 Sherman in March 2004.

Just in time for summer, a new Marble Slab Creamery has opened at 5420 South Parker Road. And just in time for those summer crowds on the Pearl Street Mall, Radek Cerny put the finishing touches on L'Atelier, his French bistro at 1739 Pearl Street in Boulder, for a June 6 debut.

Now that Eric Roeder's Bistro Vendome (1424 Larimer Street) has survived its first two months in business, that French bistro is getting a menu change. With summer comes vichyssoise (cold potato-and-leek soup that tastes way better than it sounds), grilled peaches accompanying a foie gras terrine with duck sausage and lots of asparagus that Roeder -- like most chefs -- adds to just about every plate as the season comes into full swing.


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