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No smoking? Maybe, maybe not

Betsy Kovacs flicks the ash from her cigarette as she talks with Greg Raup in the North End Tavern recently. Though they’ll be able to continue smoking at that bar in September, they might not find it as easy at other establishments.

Don Carey / The Times Leader

Companies that sell “No smoking” signs could see a boost in the coming months as the Sept. 11 start date for the state’s new Clean Indoor Air Act approaches. In the meantime, smokers and managers of establishments where smoking is currently allowed are studying the law and hypothesizing about its potential effects on them.

The partial smoking ban will mean smokers used to lighting up between bites of burger and sips of lager may have to find a new tavern in which to continue their ritual. If their favorite pub brings in at least 20 percent of its annual revenue from food sales, smokers will not be permitted to puff in the establishment. That could include places such as The Arena Bar and Grill in Wilkes-Barre, the River Grille in Plains Township and Cooper’s Seafood House in Pittston. Though the new law means little to an overwhelming majority of corner bars, some popular chain restaurants such as TGI Fridays, Applebee’s and Uno Chicago Grill will be forced to post the “no smoking” placards. Ditto all restaurants regardless of whether they have spirits on the menu or not.

Some area managers of those chain restaurants say the new law won’t impact them as much as one might think since food, not alcohol, is their main focus.

“Corner bars are where you see people chain smoke,” said Jason Polak, assistant manager at the Applebee’s in Wilkes-Barre Township. He said his restaurant allows smoking only at the bar and at three tables and he doesn’t foresee a major loss of business when the law takes effect Sept. 11. “People just don’t do it as much anymore.”

Chad Smith, of Nescopeck, oversees three Northeastern Pennsylvania Bennigan’s Grill and Taverns. He said the law has been expected for some time and if anything, chain restaurants will benefit from it.

He said more families will frequent their eateries since they’ll be smoke-free. Also, people who want to leave their home to grab a beer and watch a game on TV, but who hate the smoky environments many sports and corner bars have, can now go to the chains and enjoy a brew and a ball game sans smoke.

Not only bars and restaurants

It’s not just places that serve food and alcohol that will be affected by the law Gov. Ed Rendell signed June 13. It effectively bans smoking in all public places, including schools, hospitals, municipal buildings and sports facilities. It also bans smoking in taxis, trains and buses and in train and bus stations. A list of exceptions to the law has some irked, but overall, lawmakers said it’s a step in the right direction.

“We have taken a major step forward to reduce a serious health risk in our state by assuring that smoking will no longer be allowed indoors in most public locations and work places,” said state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township. “While the final product contains what I believe to be too many exemptions, it offers a lot of new protections for people.”

Among the exemptions included in the law are private clubs, cigar clubs, designated areas at truck stops, nursing homes, adult-care facilities, drug-and-alcohol treatment facilities, mental-health care facilities and private homes and vehicles. The law allows slot parlors outside of Philadelphia, including Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Plains Township, to provide up to 25 percent of its casino floor as a smoking environment. It does the same for up to 25 percent of rooms at lodging establishments. Shops that compile at least half of their gross sales through the sale of tobacco would also be exempt.

At the popular – and often smoke-filled -- Anthracite Newstand on Public Square, co-owner Bettye Lou Bovolick said she’s confused by the bill and has some investigating to do before Sept. 11. Her store sells tobacco products, so it might need to have gross revenues of 50 percent or greater from tobacco sales to allow smoking.

But the Anthracite also has a liquor license and sells food. One of the law’s exceptions allows businesses with a liquor license whose gross revenues are 15 percent or greater from tobacco sales to allow smoking.

No matter what she finds in her research, she doesn’t like the law.

She said it should have been a complete smoke ban or nothing and puts establishments in bad positions.

While consumers can choose which establishments to frequent, those establishments can’t choose whether or not to abide by the law, especially with the penalties allowed under the law. Smokers and owners of establishments that do not comply with the law can be fined up to $250 for a first offense. Each subsequent offense sees fines increase up to a maximum of $1,000.

The state Department of Health will be the lead agency in enforcing the law, and the Department of Revenue, Liquor Control Board, Gaming Control Board, along with counties and law enforcement agencies, will all have a role in enforcement. Thirty-two other states, including five of Pennsylvania’s neighbors and the District of Columbia, already have some type of statewide smoking ban in place.

Kenny Carey, owner of The Tipsy Turtle pubs in Swoyersville and Jenkins Township, said his establishments will have to go smoke-free in September. He said as long as he continues offering “good food, good service and a nice atmosphere, customers will keep coming.” Brian Urbanas, co-owner of Bart and Urby’s in Wilkes-Barre, said he was unsure of the intricacies of the law and wasn’t sure if his bar would have to go smoke-free or not. One of Urbanas’ patrons, Ken Smith, who said he only smokes when he drinks, wasn’t happy with the law.

“It’s not right to mess with these guys’ livelihoods. Take smoking out of the drinking business and there won’t be a bar industry. If people want to smoke, let them smoke. We live in America. Until smoking becomes illegal, how can the government tell a business it can’t let people smoke? Outrageous,” Smith said. “If a bar or restaurant wants to go smoke-free on their own, let them, don’t tell them.”

Frank Klemek, owner of the North End Tavern in Wilkes-Barre, said he’s thankful the 20-percent exemption was put in the law. That means the 58-year-old bar he runs will continue to allow smokers – which he said account for about 40 percent of his business – to light up. He predicts business will increase at least slightly thanks to the law, at the expense of other bars.

Existing local laws unaffected

While municipalities are barred from passing any future laws that supersede or contradict the state law, some recently approved ordinances by governing bodies in Luzerne County will stand. Among them are Wilkes-Barre’s approval of a law that prohibits the possession and use of tobacco products by minors in municipal parks and on city property. The law also bans the use of tobacco by adults in city parks in areas where small children play and/or congregate. Signs will be posted in all areas covered by the city ordinance, included but not limited to Public Square and the following parks: Kirby, Miner, Charles Street, Hollenback, Parsons and Coal Street.

In West Pittston, laws passed in 2007 and earlier this month ban youth from possessing tobacco on public property and smoking by people regardless of age while on public property. Public property includes parks, alleys and sidewalks.

New rules

Under a new state law, smoking will be permitted only in the following locations:

• Drinking establishments where food is 20 percent or less of annual sales.

• Private residences and private vehicles, unless the residence or vehicle is being used for child care or adult-care services.

• A designated outdoor smoking area at a sports or recreation facility, theater or performance establishment.

• Up to 25 percent of a casino floor, and up to 50 percent if a casino can prove to the state Department of Revenue that the smoking ban is harming its business.

• Nursing homes, adult-care facilities, drug and alcohol treatment facilities and mental-health care facilities.

• Cigar bars that are connected to a tobacco shop or where tobacco-related products total at least 50 percent of annual sales.

• Tobacco shops; manufacturers, importers and wholesalers of tobacco products; manufacturers of tobacco-related products.

• Tobacco promotion events, or fund-raisers for nonprofit and charitable organizations where cigars are featured.

• Private clubs.

• Up to 25 percent of the rooms in a lodging establishment, like a hotel or motel, and all rooms at full-service truck stops.

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