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Let's fire smoking eateries

November 16, 2003 1:14 am

T HE PLAN was to grab a quick dinner on our way to shop for coats for the kids. I suggested that rather than hit a fast-food restaurant, we eat at a nearby family-type restaurant where we could actually sit down and be served--fairly inexpensively.

Without naming names, the restaurant we chose is part of a national chain that would seem to be very child-friendly, with a special kids' menu and lots of ice-cream treats.

"Smoking or nonsmoking?" we were asked. We requested non-smoking seating, but soon realized that at this restaurant, the only apparent difference between smoking and nonsmoking tables is that some don't have ashtrays.

It's remarkable to me how quickly smoking in general seems to have tapered off, particularly indoors. Persuading people to do what's best for their health and safety takes time. From using seat belts, to eating more fruits and veggies, to quitting cigarettes, positive changes in behavior can take a generation or more but do eventually catch on.

So where have all the smokers gone? I think we found most of them in that restaurant. We noticed the smoke immediately but figured we'd put up with it after weighing the delay and inconvenience of driving to a different place with hungry kids. Had the server not come so quickly to take our order, we might have left.

We discovered that we were virtually surrounded by smokers. My eyes were beginning to burn, and my wife complained of a sore throat. One woman with a couple of children at her nearby table smoked before, during, and after her meal. I think I was sad and disgusted in equal parts. What must it be like in that woman's house or car? Those kids could be breathing the equivalent of a pack a day or more in secondhand smoke. How can anyone, knowing what we know, be so uncaring or stupid?

The manager we spoke to on our way out seemed to sigh and acknowledge that the smoke was pretty bad. He said his servers argue over who gets to work the nonsmoking area, as if there really is one. For them, the entire restaurant is an unhealthy and unpleasant workplace.

I smoked for the better part of three decades, calling it quits on March 3, 1999. I'd been cutting back for years. First work became off-limits for smoking, then the house--especially after the kids came along. Then it really began to hit home that the sooner I quit those last few daily cigarettes, the longer I might be around to enjoy my family.

Although I'm writing this column purposely to run the week of Great American Smokeout Day this Thursday, my feeling was always that I'd quit when I was ready, not at the behest of anyone or organization.

Smoking tobacco is legal, so people ought to be free to smoke wherever it's allowed. But the time has come for owners of restaurants and other businesses to realize that catering to smokers is a dying strategy. They claim to fear a loss of business, but ignore a possible gold mine of customers who are staying away because of the smoke.

I e-mailed the restaurant's corporate headquarters to suggest that its inability to provide a true smoke-free eating area creates a very unfriendly environment for kids and nonsmokers. The reply thanked me for my comments and said something about striving to please all of their customers. I must have deleted it in frustration. We won't be going back.

In Montgomery County, Md., a new law bans smoking in restaurants and bars. Hard-core smokers are fuming over being barred from lighting up in their favorite haunts. "What's next?" goes the familiar chorus in such situations, "Restaurants being banned from serving fatty foods? Decaf only at the coffee shop?"

Well, no. There is a very significant difference with smoking: Those who smoke are affecting the health not only of themselves, but of everyone around them. In restaurants and bars, that includes patrons, servers, and bartenders who do not smoke and would rather not inhale secondhand smoke. Smoke-free areas, as at the restaurant, seldom work as intended.

Moreover, with smoking routinely banned in so many places today, nonsmokers have grown accustomed to smoke-free environments and many will simply not visit or patronize places where they have to put up with smoke.

Statistics make it clear that smoking is on the way out. Today, just a quarter of all Americans over the age of 18 smoke. Twenty years ago, the figure was about one-third. The difference probably seems even greater than that because those who still smoke do so in their cars, in their own homes, or outside of public places. Those who whine about smokers' rights and smoker discrimination--not to mention Big Tobacco itself--have become fodder for punch lines on sitcoms and late-night television.

The good thing about this trend is that those who still smoke will smoke less if they have to go out of their way to light up. Another upside in places like Montgomery County, New York City, California, and other jurisdictions that have banned smoking in public places is that bars and restaurants will draw more of the three-quarters of Americans who don't smoke. The transition period is taking a toll in Montgomery County both on business and tax revenues, so those who said they would support smoke-free businesses should make good on their promises.

In a business-oriented state that also has the nation's lowest cigarette tax at 2.5 cents per pack, legislated bans on smoking aren't likely anytime soon. But the more businesses take it upon themselves to ban smoking, the more apparent it will become that losing smoking customers is no big deal, and it just might be good for business.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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