TODAY’S QUESTION: Was Pennsylvania wise in adopting a statewide ban on smoking in eateries and other public places one year ago?

Reporter Matt Assad talked with Lehigh Valley restaurant owners on both sides of the issue for their views.

Customers, not bureaucrats, should decide what to breathe

The Clean Air Act of 2008, now in place for a year, bans smoking in most restaurants and bars statewide. Do you think the state was right in prohibiting smoking in private businesses?

No, I most certainly do not. They should have left it up to the individual restaurants and their customers. There were lots of restaurants and bars that were non-smoking before the law, and lots that still had smoking. The free market was regulating itself just fine. There was no reason for the state to interfere.

But was that fair to customers who didn’t want to breathe other people’s secondhand smoke?

That’s why it’s the free market. Customers are free to avoid the places that allow smoking and that’s a chance any bar or restaurant had to deal with, just as the restaurants that banned smoking had to consider whether it costs them business. But as I said, those are decisions for the restaurant owner and the customers to make, not the state.

You have received an exemption giving you the right to allow smoking in the bar area at Neffs so long as it is walled off from the restaurant and has a separate entrance and ventilation system. Do you think the exemption gives you an unfair advantage over bars that do not have the exemption?

Possibly. As I said, I really don’t think there should be a law. It should be fair game for everyone. I do think it gives us an advantage, and that’s why we sought the exemption. Like it or not, people like to smoke. We’re just giving our customers what they want.

Do you think the exemption allowing smoking at Neffs has helped sales?

It has definitely helped sales. I’ve noticed new customers who came from bars that no longer allow smoking.

What would you say to someone who says the law is working and all exemptions should be removed?

I’d tell them they’re dead wrong. An across-the-board ban would be extremely detrimental to our business. Without the exemption, I think we’d be in trouble. And consider that if the ban was across the board, our patrons would be outside smoking. That’s not very professional, it’s doesn’t look good and it’s not fair to our neighbors. The exemption is an absolute must.

Kelly Schaffer and her husband, Zane, have owned Neffs Hotel and the Other Side Restaurant the past 10 years. The barroom at Neffs has been granted an exception that allows patrons to smoke.

Secondhand smoke alone is reason to support statewide ban

The Clean Indoor Air Act of 2008, now in place for a year, bans smoking in most restaurants and bars statewide. Do you think the state was right in prohibiting smoking in private businesses?

I’m not a big advocate for having the state tell me how to run my business, but in this case, I think the smoking ban is a good thing. Kids don’t always have an opportunity to choose where they are going to have dinner with their parents, and there is clear medical evidence that secondhand smoke causes cancer and heart disease. In the interest of protecting people who simply don’t have a decision, this was the right thing to do.

But is it fair to bars and restaurants that had developed a cliental of smokers to have the state potentially take those customers away?

That’s why the law allows for exceptions. A lot of restaurant owners are against the exceptions because they say it creates an uneven playing field, but I believe [the exceptions] are key. There are a lot of mom-and-pop corner bars that have a customer base that is heavy on smokers. I would hate to see this law run them out of business.

You have chosen not to seek exemptions. Does the fact nearby restaurants have exemptions put your bars at a disadvantage?

No. I don’t think it disadvantages me one bit. Strictly as a business decision, there are a lot more non-smokers than smokers. When we opened our last two restaurants [Starters RiverPort and Starters Club House], we made the decision to open non-smoking, even before the ban. For a sports bar, that wasn’t an easy decision to make, but we’ve found the ban to be a positive thing.

Do you think the smoking ban has hurt sales at Starters Pub, in Lower Saucon, which had smoking at the bar until the ban took effect?

Yes, bar sales went down after the ban. But I believe the dining room benefitted. I think more non-smokers, knowing there would not be smokers at the bar a few steps away, decided to frequent the dining room. So, there was an offset and, over time, I think the smokers who left have begun coming back to the bar.

What would you say to someone who says the law has created a hardship for some and should be repealed?

I’d say they’re wrong and removing the ban would be the wrong thing to do. In a long run, the law is a good thing, a very good thing.

Dave Rank owns three sports bars and restaurants, including Starters RiverPort in Bethlehem.


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