State smoking ban just days away

Smokers beware, lungs rejoice. Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act goes into effect Thursday.

The law bans cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking in restaurants, office buildings, schools, sports arenas, Bingo halls and bus stations among other local locations. Even though there are some exceptions to the ban, health advocates said the law is a start.

Jeanne Fignar, the policy and research coordinator for the Partnership for a Tobacco Free Northeast PA, said several efforts have been made over the past decade to get some level of a smoking ban in place. She said the legislature’s passage of the bill and Gov. Ed Rendell’s subsequent signature making it law were “huge steps for Pennsylvania.”

The state joins 24 others, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., in implementing smoking crackdowns, though Pennsylvania’s isn’t a total ban.

It allows smoking in some bars and taverns, portions of casino floors, private clubs and elsewhere.

“This act will cover well over 95 percent of businesses,” Fignar said. “When you consider what we had before, that’s wonderful.”

She called the act “a very good start” but said those who think the law is the final step are mistaken.

“There are those exceptions and we’ll deal with those,” Fignar said. “There’s always an opportunity in the future to add amendments and toughen the law to include the other five percent.” Among those exceptions are establishments that serve alcohol but food sales account for less than 20 percent of overall revenue.

Customers’ smoke signals

Among the local establishments included in the five percent where smoking is allowed to some extent are the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs slots parlor, cigar and tobacco stores, private social clubs and some corner bars and nightclubs. Among the later are The Bourbon Street Saloon and Hardware Bar on South Main Street in Wilkes-Barre.

The bars, operated by Ron Kamionka, qualify for an exemption under the law because less than 20 percent of its revenue is generated by food sales.

“They’re not going there for the dinner,” Kamionka said of his two establishments. He said that while he agrees with the intent of the law “I’m really glad the exemptions are in place.”

“I’m very OK with it,” Kamionka said. “It gives us a competitive advantage in the market.” He said other establishments that offer a full menu and bar might not qualify for an exemption and some smokers might look toward the smaller corner bars or taverns such as his with limited menus to be able to light up a cigarette while downing a lager.

“The places that allow smoking will see a competitive advantage,” Kamionka said.

That’s something that concerns Fignar, who said that for years restaurant and bar owners who wanted to go smoke free couldn’t because of the potential loss of business to the competitor down the road that still allowed it.

“This does level the playing field,” Fignar said, though she allows that it’s not perfect.

Two restaurants that went smoke-free two years ago, well in advance of the law’s creation, were the Mark II locations in Wilkes-Barre Township and Dallas.

Bernard Sult, owner of the two dining establishments, said he supports the law and urged other businesses not to fear any sort of customer drop-off.

“I had a lot of people tell me they’ll never see me again (when the restaurants went smoke-free in the fall of 2006),” Sult said. “And for about 20 percent of them, that was the case.” But he said he gained diners who told him how nice it was to be able to eat in a smoke-free environment and not have to wait in line longer for a no-smoking section table to open up.

He said the eateries saw a slight drop-off within the first month or two after the policy change but then business not only rebounded, it increased.

Not all establishment owners are as happy with the law, the exemptions in particular.

Eric Murphy, who owns the Swoyersville bar bearing his last name, said he would be fine if the law was all or none, not some. With a half-dozen bars within a mile that will all be permitted to allow smoking, while his establishment will have to ban it, Murphy said he might be impacted.

“I really hope not, but you won’t know until it happens,” he said. He will enforce the law in his establishment, but he said he hopes other bar owners do the same.

The state Department of Health and the Bureau of Liquor Enforcement will oversee enforcement of the law, which includes fines between USD 250 and USD 1,000 depending on the offense.

Establishments are required to post signs stating whether smoking is permitted or not and employees must enforce the law or risk being cited.

Patrons may file complaints with the state regarding establishments not following the law, and complaint forms can be found on the state Department of Health Web site.

Not only eateries and bars

While the focus of the law usually centers on businesses, public places are also included.

In Wilkes-Barre, that means all 13 public parks or playgrounds will be smoke free, as will City Hall and the Luzerne County properties such as the jail, court house and Penn Place.

Mayor Tom Leighton said signs will be posted in city parks reminding visitors of the new law.

“The Young Lungs at Play initiative and coordinating no-smoking ordinance will make Wilkes-Barre’s playground areas safer for children and their families. Plus, this program will enhance the quality of life in the Wilkes-Barre community at no cost to taxpayers,” said Leighton.

Wilkes-Barre City Council adopted its own smoking ordinance and city police will enforce it in addition to the state law.