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Lawmakers should ignore attempt to allow cigar loophole to indoor-smoking ban

Publication Date: 1/23/2012
  • Author:Patrick Pearse McAleese
  • Publication:The Seattle Times

Washington's indoor-smoking ban is effective, fair and popular, writes Seattle restaurateur Patrick Pearse McAleese. Legislators should ignore those lobbying to allow cigar smoking in some restaurants and shops and keep their focus on protecting public and workplace health.

SINCE voters approved a statewide indoor-smoking ban in 2005, Washington's bars, restaurants and public places have become cleaner and healthier for customers and employees alike. As the owner of a popular Irish bar in Seattle's Pike Place Market, I certainly don't miss the days I went home with watery eyes and smelling of smoke, and neither do the vast majority of my servers, bartenders and patrons.

A recent survey by supporters of the Clean Indoor Air law shows that support for the measure has grown since 63 percent of voters initially approved the ban. Support now stands at 84 percent, with more than 70 percent opposed to weakening the protections to health and safety guaranteed by the law.

The survey, funded by a coalition including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), American Heart Association and the American Lung Association of the Mountain Pacific, comes as lawmakers reconvene in Olympia and consider weakening the law.

Given public sentiment and the host of large issues to grapple with, it's a little ironic that some lobbyists and legislators are pushing a loophole to the law to allow for cigar smoking in some restaurants and retail shops (Senate Bill 5542). Conjuring images of "smoke-filled rooms" where political decisions are made despite overwhelming public opinion, this proposal would weaken both the intent of the smoking ban to protect indoor public spaces from harmful carcinogens and create a precedent for further special-interest loopholes.

Protecting the public and employees from the dangers of secondhand smoke from any tobacco product is a serious matter, and one the public clearly understands. More than 90 percent of Washington voters strongly support protecting the workers and customers from rollbacks, according to the survey.

Public-health experts have long tracked the effects of secondhand smoke. In states where similar legislation has been passed, there is indeed a proven decline in cardiovascular disease. Locally, I can attest to fewer sick days for my employees, a broader customer base and a healthier, livelier working environment.

Some bar and restaurant owners, originally concerned that the Clean Indoor Air Act might hurt business, have come to appreciate its merits, and are now wary of turning back the clock on secondhand smoke protections for their customers and staff. Given overwhelming public sentiment opposed to reintroducing indoor smoking, they should be.

It isn't just bars and restaurants at risk of cigar smoke. Under the proposed loophole, retail tobacco locations including those in malls could also allow patrons to smoke indoors, with ventilation systems and other mitigation measures simply unable to process 100 percent of the risk.

The current Clean Indoor Air law is working to protect everyone's right to breathe clean air. Secondhand smoke is a proven health hazard. It doesn't make sense to change current standards to allow cigar smoking in public places. While I respect and appreciate the desire of some bar and restaurant owners to create a specialized atmosphere for a niche clientele, the broader risks to health and potential future rollbacks for other groups (pipe smokers, clove cigarettes? Medical marijuana?) are simply too great.

Washington's Clean Indoor Air law is effective, fair and popular. Legislators should ignore the smoke screen from a few lobbyists and keep their focus on protecting public and workplace health.

Patrick Pearse McAleese is owner of Kells Irish Restaurant and Pub in Seattle.