Smoking Ban

An employee takes a smoke break at the bar of Morgan's Place bar and restaurant in Harrisburg, Pa., in this AP file photo.

Enacted 10 years ago, the Clean Indoor Act banned smoking in all Pennsylvania restaurants and in most bars. It is now accepted and welcomed by just about everyone.

However, there were a lot of protests at the time from restaurant and bar owners. They maintained their patrons would stay away in droves, and they'd have to close their doors.

Of course, that didn't happen. In fact, many bars and restaurants boomed as people liked going out for a drink or a meal without getting cigarette smoke blown in their faces and coming home without their clothes reeking of burnt tobacco.

However, in a compromise with those opposed to the law, exemptions were made for private clubs, casinos and bars with food sales accounting for 20 percent or less of their annual sales.

The thought was that over time these exemptions would be ended as people became more educated about the problems of second-hand smoke.

One of those people was former state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican from Montgomery County, who fought long and hard for the ban.

"As the information has gotten out to the public about second-hand smoke, people have come to realize that this is a deadly substance," Greenleaf said when the bill was passed in 2008. "As time goes on, it (a smoking ban) will continue to receive greater and greater support."

But that hasn't happened either. Despite repeated efforts over the years to repeal the exemptions, they remain firmly in place.

A bill to eliminate the exemptions was introduced last year but the measure never made it out of the state House of Representatives' Health Committee. A similar bill went nowhere in the state Senate.

The threat was so minimal that the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, which strongly opposed the Clean Indoor Act, when it was passed, didn't even take a position on the bills.

Chuck Moran, executive director of the association, told the Patriot-News that there wasn’t a need to weigh in, since the bills weren’t moving.

“I’m not sure there’s an appetite at the capitol at this time to go back and revisit it,” Moran said. “The compromise isn’t too old.”

However, the decade-long compromise is coming at a high price. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that second-hand smoke kills 42,000 people every year, including 7,000 from lung cancer. It added that long-term exposure to secondhand smoke can raise heart disease rates in adult nonsmokers by 25 percent to 30 percent.

Emma Watson, Pennsylvania government relations director for the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network, said there are many misconceptions about exposure to secondhand smoke, pointing out that it causes the same tobacco-related diseases and premature deaths as active smoking.

“There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke,” Watson said.

Watson said it's been frustrating to see that nothing's happened to the exemptions over the years. She said the fight is “complicated'' because of all the backing from groups who benefit from the exemptions.

But Watson said she's still hopeful that the exemptions will be lifted eventually. She pointed out that state Sen. State Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, is seeking co-sponsors for a bill that would remove the exemptions for bars and private clubs.

“We need more public support,'' said Watson. “Other neighboring states have done this. It's something Pennsylvania should be able to do. We need to get it on the radar of our legislators and make it a priority for them. Workers at these places shouldn't have to choose between their jobs and their health.''

She added that attitudes have shifted over the years, especially among young people who now go into bars and restaurants expecting them to be smoke free. She said they need to have the same expectations for casinos and private clubs

“We need people to realize just how dangerous secondhand smoke is,'' added Watson.

Despite being frustrated over the lack of movement on the exemptions, Watson noted that the American Cancer Society worked hard for years to pass the Clean Indoor Act and will fight for as long as it takes to lift the exemptions.

“This is important enough that we can't walk away,'' contended Watson.

Mark O’Keefe is a retired journalist. He worked for 38 years at the Herald-Standard in Uniontown, Pa., serving for nine years as executive editor and four years as editorial page editor. He won several awards for his coverage of the Pennsylvania Legislature. He can be reached by email at mokeefe1@yahoo.com