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Smoke lingers at bars, casinos 10 years after no-smoking law

September 29, 2018

PITTSBURGH (AP) — On a hot, hazy August afternoon, the lunch crowd at the Rosecliff Tavern in Monroeville is winding down. A sign on the door warns in bold white letters: “No one under 18 years old” is allowed to enter.

Inside — where a cigarette machine and the smell of stale smoke greet patrons — the haze turns thicker. Customers dot the U-shaped bar, a few enjoying a smoke at the end of their meals.

Monroeville resident Joe Dipietro, 74, steps outside onto the pavement strewn with cigarette butts. He visits the neighborhood bar a couple of days a week to chat with friends and he isn’t bothered by the smoke even though he’s trying to quit the habit. “I occasionally cheat,” he allowed. “My lungs are bad. The doctor said I had to quit smoking.”

Dipietro’s friend, Bill Montgomery, is a regular at the Rosecliff, too.

“It’s handy to where I live, and I needed a place where I could smoke,” said Montgomery, 75.

It’s been 10 years this month since Pennsylvania banned smoking in most workplaces and public venues. Smoke continues to linger in roughly 2,000 workplaces across the state, notably certain bars and up to half the gaming floors at all 12 of Pennsylvania’s casinos. (The 2,000 figure doesn’t include Philadelphia, which has a stricter smoking ordinance that took effect in 2007.)

Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act allows bars to apply for an exemption if food accounts for 20 percent or less of their overall sales and no one under 18 is permitted to enter.

As of late last month, 1,969 bars, cigar bars and tobacco shops had an exemption, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which is charged with approving waivers.

The number of exemptions has declined steadily over the years. The peak was in 2009 — the first full year the ban was in effect — when there were 3,139.

Loren Robinson, deputy secretary for health promotion and disease prevention at the state health department, pointed to two main reasons for the decline.

“I think a lot more people are wanting to breathe fresh clean air,” she said, adding that more bar owners have found that converting to non-smoking is better for business.

Another factor involves the realities of growing a business, Dr. Robinson said. “If you want to bring in more revenue by selling more food, you can’t do that and meet the terms of the exception,” she said.

Smoking ban waivers, complaints decline

As waivers have fallen, so have complaints against businesses for alleged violations. In 2009, the state health department fielded 2,990 “valid” complaints about unlawful smoking. That number dropped to 155 in 2017.

“The pressure from the public for these businesses to get into compliance has caused places to be in compliance,” Dr. Robinson said.

Businesses ignoring the rules risk enforcement action — including fines and the possible suspension of their liquor license.

After getting bombarded over the years by complaints from non-smoking customers, Bob Guiliani, owner of Papa Rocks Pizza Pub in Monroeville, decided to give up his business’ exemption and go smoke free three years ago.

A number of restaurants in the area had stopped allowing smoking because they didn’t qualify for an exception, he said. “That caused all the smokers to come to us. The smoke just got overwhelming, and we started losing good, regular non-smoking customers.”

He lost some smoking customers after converting, but the decline was more than offset by a pickup among non-smokers.

“It was a good decision,” said Guiliani, a non-smoker.

“It’s nice to enjoy a meal without smoke blowing in your face. Even some of the smokers told me that.”

The Baja Bar & Grill at the Fox Chapel Yacht Club went smoke free just one year ago. Owner James “Bimmy” Joyce has no regrets.

“I wish we would have done it sooner. None of us (not even employees who smoke) enjoyed going home on Saturday night and waking up Sunday morning and smelling our dirty clothes on the other side of the room,” said Mr. Joyce, a non-smoker.

The business, which is open to the public, has continued to grow, he said.

The catalyst for going smoke free at the Baja Bar & Grill was a renovation project that included an addition, a new ceiling, new flooring and a paint job.

“I walked in one morning and it didn’t smell of cigarette smoke any more. I thought if I open up smoking, it will take one month and the place will smell again,” Joyce said.

There were a few grumbles from smokers at first, he said, but having an outside bar open in the summer where customers can smoke eased the transition.

Clearing more air

Since the U.S. Surgeon General’s report in 1964 warning about the dangers of smoking, roughly 2.5 million nonsmokers have died from health problems related to secondhand smoke, including heart disease and lung cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

“No amount of secondhand smoke is safe,” the CDC states on its website.

Legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania periodically to eliminate the exceptions in the no-smoking law, but the effort has failed to gain traction.

Most recently, in 2017, Senate Bill 519 and House Bill 1309 were introduced to get rid of exemptions. The bills also would prohibit smoking on outdoor patios at restaurants and bars, and allow local governments to enact stricter smoke-free rules than the state’s. Both bills have been stuck in committee.

The Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association in Harrisburg — which along with the tobacco industry successfully lobbied for the exemptions for bars — last week said it had no position on the bills.

Opponents of a full ban argue that it’s an example of too much government meddling in private affairs. And they say workers and customers bothered by smoke are free to go elsewhere.

Rosecliff patron Montgomery doesn’t support broadening the smoking ban because he’s skeptical that it might not include casinos.

Fellow Rosecliff customer Elliott Edelstein, 76, a 50-year smoker who quit when he developed throat cancer in recent years, also is against an across-the-board ban. He said there already are lots of non-smoking venues to choose from.

“People should have the right to smoke if they want,” he said. If employees don’t like it, “They can work somewhere else.”

Others are in favor of clearing the smoke everywhere, including the owners of the Baja Bar & Grill and Papa Rocks Pizza Pub. They argue that exemptions create an uneven playing field.

Under a straight ban, “Nobody would have to worry about their business going up the street (to a smoking bar), or fighting to be smoking,” said Joyce of the Baja Bar & Grill.

Another argument for a full ban involves a loophole that could allow some businesses to skirt the rules. Some suspect places with extensive menus that sell too much food to qualify for a waiver could improperly ring up sales as takeout, since the 20 percent limit only applies to food eaten on site.

“I think we will always have people who are looking to game the system. I don’t think that is the majority of cases,” the health department’s Dr. Robinson said. “We would need the general public to alert us to that so we could investigate.”

Businesses with exemptions are required to submit sales receipts annually, which the health department then double-checks with the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, she said.

Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, chief proponent of the current no-smoking law, said he’s proud of the more than decade-long effort that got the law passed.

“There aren’t too many times that you pass legislation and can say it saved hundreds of lives,” Mr. Greenleaf said.

He said he was disappointed the measure wasn’t all-inclusive, but said legislators made compromises in the face of fierce lobbying by casinos and taverns.

“I remember thinking you have to take what you can get. If we pushed for no exceptions, we would have had no protection the last decade,” said Greenleaf, who is retiring Dec. 1 after some 40 years in state office.

During a news conference in Pittsburgh earlier this month to mark the Clean Indoor Air Act’s 10th anniversary, no-smoking advocates, lawmakers and other elected officials contended that the time was right to get rid of exemptions.

“If you work in most businesses in Pennsylvania, your lungs are protected,” while employees at casinos and hundreds of bars are not, said state house Democratic caucus chairman Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill.

Bill Godshall, executive director of Smokefree Pennsylvania, called the smoking ban “the most successful public health law ever enacted by the state.”

“It’s done the most to protect public health,” he said. “And it cost almost nothing to implement.”

Ironically, Godshall doesn’t support the legislation that would broaden the ban because it also would prohibit vaping, which he advocates as a way for smokers to kick the habit.

“Are you going to ban cell phones and chewing gum because it bothers some people?” he asked. He wants to leave it up to individual businesses to set rules on vaping.

Last year, Allegheny County Council passed a ban on vaping in public places, including restaurants and office buildings. Philadelphia also has a vaping ban.

Saying good-bye

Jim Evans, 74, of North Versailles said he’s been coming to the Rosecliff and its predecessor bars for some 40 years.

Although he’s a non-smoker, he isn’t bothered by the smoky air. “Smokers usually sit at the bar. We can sit at a booth,” he said.

Nevertheless, he believes the days are numbered for smoking bars. He estimated about 10 percent of the clientele at the Rosecliff lights up inside. The owner of the Rosecliff did not return calls seeking comment.

“A lot of people who used to smoke either died or quit,” Evans said. He believes a total ban on indoor smoking would be a good thing. “I’m for it. It’s going to happen.”

Some observers believe that even if lawmakers fail to act, smoking in bars is destined to die a natural death.

“It’s all about culture,” Dr. Robinson said. “When my mother was a nurse, nurses would smoke while evaluating patients. And in high school, there was even a smoking lounge for students. That just seems out of place today because there are so many places where you can’t smoke.

“There is a loyal clientele (at smoking bars), but probably not enough to sustain the business over time.”

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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