Smoke-free? Sort of

Those who worked to achieve ban say it’s working, though 6,000 establishments are exempt — with more on the way


Pennsylvania’s been a ”smoke-free” state for nearly a year.

Except for the 3,100 clubs exempt from the 2008 Clean Indoor Air Act. And the nine casinos that still cater to smokers. And the 2,700 restaurants, bars and lounges granted exemptions in the past year.

That’s almost 6,000 establishments — including 96 restaurants and lounges and more than 150 private social clubs in the Lehigh Valley — where people can still smoke ’em if they got ’em. An additional 350 applications for exemptions are in process, and new ones are arriving each week.

So thousands of workers and nonsmoking customers continue to breathe second-hand smoke each day. Still, even the most dedicated anti-smoking advocates say the law is doing what it was intended to do — protecting most Pennsylvanians.

”The act, overall, has been very successful,” said Jeanne Fignar of the Partnership for a TobaccoFree Northeast Pennsylvania. ”We lost some of the battles on exemptions, but we figure more than 90 percent of workers are protected. That’s a success.”

People on both sides still are trying to get a handle on the law’s impact. It’s clear some patrons have switched watering holes, based on whether they smoke or not. But it’s less clear how much it has affected business, largely because of the recession.

Several things seem clear: The people who lobbied against the law still hate it, those who worked to get it passed say it is working, and exemptions are generating buzz.

Statewide, 2,463 places have been able to get an exemption by showing that food sales are less than 20 percent of their business and by barring anyone under 18 years old. An additional 170 have received another kind of exemption by showing they have a special smoking room with its own entrance and ventilation.

”We know some people who wanted no exceptions to the rule are frustrated, but we advocated for the most stringent Clean Indoor Air Act possible,” said state Department of Health spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman. ”If they’re not happy with it, we suggest they contact their state legislator.”

Private clubs that hoped the ban would expand their niche say they’ve experienced no drastic increase in membership.

”It’s been sort of a double-edged sword,” said Harold Kirkhuff, president of Heights Athletic Association, Bethlehem. ”For every new member we attracted, we probably lost a member who doesn’t like all the smoke.”

The Pennsylvania Tavern Association, which lobbied heavily against the law, says most restaurants without smoking have experienced a decline in sales. But Patrick Conway, president of the 7,000-member Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, said the recession is mostly the reason.

Anecdotally, there’s been at least some shifting of business.

Edge Restaurant on Broad Street in Bethlehem experienced weekly losses of $300 to $500 when the ban hit, managing partner Fran Mantz said. He traced it to a handful of regular customers who smoked.

”They all went outside for a while, but then winter came and we lost them for good,” Mantz said. ”They come in to say ‘hi’ to the bartenders once in a while, but they want to smoke while they drink and you can’t do that here anymore.”

The customers went across the street to Ripper’s Pub, one of 40 restaurants, bars and lounges to get an exemption in Northampton County.

Mantz said he doesn’t regret the change or blame an uneven field.

”Yes, we’ve lost some business, but honestly, we’d been wanting to go nonsmoking for a few years,” Mantz said. ”This gave us a chance to blame it on the state.”

Judy Oches, director of the state’s tobacco and prevention control program, said the ban has been a success. Rather than looking at the fraction of lounges that still have smoking, she points to the more than 20,000 restaurants that no longer do, and the thousands of workplaces statewide that are universally smoke-free.

Perhaps just as important, she said, is that more people support the ban than ever. According to state surveys, 92 percent of Pennsylvanians believe secondhand smoke is harmful and 78 percent believe smoking should not be allowed in any indoor workplace — a 7 percent increase over 2006.

”We’re proud because we know we are changing attitudes,” Oches said. ”The number of adults who smoke in Pennsylvania is down to 21 percent. Everything this past year has surpassed our expectations.”

And the granting of exemptions may soon slow. By next month, the state Department of Revenue will begin analyzing tax returns to make sure establishments comply with the 20 percent food cutoff. Scofflaws probably would be forced to go smoke-free.

”We are very pleased with the law we have,” Fignar said, ”but we’re not done.”


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