Industry opposition wanes as legislatures continue to mull smoking ban proposals

Industry opposition wanes as legislatures continue to mull smoking ban proposals

As a growing number of lawmakers seek to snuff out secondhand smoke at workplaces throughout their states, resistance to those bans continues to wane among restaurant groups in favor of consistent prohibitions for all employers, including bars and casinos.

At least a half-dozen state legislatures, which are reconvening this month after holiday recesses, are in the process of refining or expanding smoking ban proposals, some of which are expected to pass this year. Proposals in various forms currently are pending in Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South [3] Carolina and Wisconsin. In addition, Montana and Utah, which currently ban smoking in restaurants, have expanded their bans to bars, scheduled to go into effect in 2009.

Statewide bans currently are in effect in 26 states. While most apply to all workplaces, some exempt bars and casinos, a situation that raises the ire of many restaurateurs. Maryland’s across-the-board statewide ban becomes effective Feb. 1, and Oregon’s, which exempts casinos, will go into effect Jan. 1, 2009.A statewide ban with no exemptions also went into effect in Illinois on Jan. 1.

Although many operators continue to say that they should be the ones to decide whether to allow their customers to smoke in their establishments, more restaurant associations have changed their positions to support workplace bans without exemptions—a switch from earlier opposition to bans of any kind. “Our association’s position is it should be a workplace ban with no exemptions to keep a level playing field,” said Tom Sponseller, chief executive of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina. “I am guessing something will happen this year.”

That state’s House of Representatives came within three votes of banning smoking in all workplaces the past two years. Currently, a similar bill is in the Judiciary Committee.

However, the Legislature is not expected to act before the state Supreme Court hears a case scheduled for Jan. 14 to determine whether local municipalities have the right to determine their own smoking policies.

The Pennsylvania Restaurant Association [4] supports a comprehensive statewide smoking ban “that protects all workers everywhere,” said Patrick Conway, chief executive. “A bartender in a restaurant is no less or more important than a bartender in a bar or a casino.”

Two different bills pending in the Pennsylvania Legislature have gone to the Conference Committee to try to bring them into agreement. The Senate bill as currently written has a “long list” of exemptions, said Conway, who added he expects that a ban of some kind will be passed this year.

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association is backing a total work-place smoking ban, but the Wisconsin Tavern League wants taverns, classified as places with at least 51 percent of sales being alcoholic beverages, to be exempt. “There are some very big restaurants that would qualify as taverns,” noted Ed Lump, association chief executive.

“There is increasing pressure to pass a ban,” he said, citing a recent editorial in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. He said there is a good chance a ban will pass and be signed by the governor by the close of the current session, which ends in late March.

Likewise, a statewide ban is expected to pass before long in Iowa, said Scott Carlson, owner of Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing in Des Moines. Currently, businesses decide whether to allow smoking.

Carlson allows smoking only in the bar, which is separated from the restaurant by a thick wall, after 2 p.m. He stopped allowing smoking in the bar at lunchtime after customers complained, he said.

“About 80 percent of restaurants and bars are smoke-free in Iowa,” Carlson said, indicating that percentage corresponds to the percentage of state residents who don’t smoke. “The system isn’t broken,” he added.

Some Iowa legislators favor exempting casinos from a smoking ban, but Carlson does not. “If it’s a health issue for employees, why aren’t they worried about the dealers and other casino workers?” he asked.

Two bills pending in the Michigan Legislature also exempt three casinos in Detroit as well as several Native American-owned casinos on reservations, said Andy Deloney, lobbyist for the Michigan Restaurant Association. Regardless of exemptions, the association opposes a statewide ban. The House bill passed in December, and the Senate bill was referred to committee.

A statewide workplace ban became effective Jan. 1 in Illinois, bringing many smokers outdoors in spite of frigid weather. Some riverboat casino operators, who predict they will lose 20 percent of their business, built outdoor shelters for their smoking clientele.

One former bar owner in Chicago turned his place into a tobacco shop, where smoking is allowed. Business owners violating the ban are subject to fines ranging from $250 to $2,500, depending on number of violations, and individuals could be fined between $100 and $250.

The board of the Restaurant and Hospitality Association of Indiana unanimously took a stand that if there must be a ban, it should be across the board with no exemptions. “The biggest controversy will come with the casinos,” said John Livengood, association chief executive. Some riverboat casinos are located only a mile from the Illinois state line and want business from that state’s smokers.

“Casinos and tobacco companies are the main opponents of smoke-free air,” said Bronson Frick, associate director of the nonprofit Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, based in Berkeley, Calif. “Restaurateurs and restaurant associations that once were strongly opposed have transitioned to favoring smoke-free air.”

“Now, it’s normal for restaurants to be smoke-free and is no longer controversial,” Frick said. “It’s not about not smoking; it’s about not smoking in ways that harm other people, especially in places where they work.”