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Editorial: Tucson restaurant smoking ban meaningless

Arizona Daily Wildcat,
October 6, 1999

There's been a great deal of uproar over the smoking ban which took effect in the city of Tucson last week. However, the real question isn't if second-hand smoke is harmful or if city government should regulate it.

As new provisions are introduced for inclusion into the legislation, the real question is why anyone cares. In its current form, the bill is absolutely meaningless.

If a restaurant wishes to continue to allow smoking, they can do any number of things to circumvent the law.

First, they can become a "private dining club" rather than a restaurant. They simply must charge a nominal membership fee, and they can allow smoking.

Molly G's and Bobo's restaurants have both adopted this approach. Together, they have sold over 1,400 memberships for $1 a piece. Far from condemning this circumvention of the law, Democratic Councilwoman Janet Marcus, one of the most vocal supporters of the ban, implied that they would not be stopped unless the "clubs" started receiving complaints or were very visible about utilizing the loophole.

In other words, they can have smoking if they want, as long as they don't make the City Council look stupid.

In addition to this loophole, the city ordinance has a number of exemptions built in. For university students, the most important exemption is for restaurants that serve alcohol. If a restaurant serves more alcohol than food, as many university-area restaurants are bound to do, they are exempt from the ban, and patrons can smoke if they so desire. Also, restaurants that have specially ventilated areas or separate smoking sections are unaffected.

As if these exemptions didn't already remove any bite from the smoking ban, new additions to the ordinance may remove any semblance of impact from the bill.

At Monday's City Council meeting, Democratic Councilman Steve Leal called for modifications that would allow even more outs for businesses that wished to continue to allow smoking. His provisions would permit restaurants to stop serving food at night, thus they'd become a "dance club" and could allow smoking if they so desire.

Another modification would allow restaurants to buy permits that would allow them to have smoking during private parties, as long as they posted warning signs. Finally, he would allow non-smoking areas to be closer to patios where smoking is still allowed, and make it easier for restaurants to get waivers from the ordinance if the smoking ban is costing them business.

These modifications to the ban would ensure that any business that cared to could avoid having to comply with the ordinance. So then, who is affected by the ban?

Restaurants that didn't have many smoking customers anyway, as they won't have any reason to circumvent the ban, and family chain restaurants, which, while they may have previously allowed smoking, aren't willing or able to make the alterations necessary to get around the law. In short, the law means that Tucsonans won't be able to smoke in Denny's, and maybe not in IHOP. One would imagine that the City Council would have more pressing issues to deal with, like radon in the water, Rio Nuevo or even "big box" zoning.

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