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    Retailers lobby for smoking loophole

    Businesses plead their case to a Senate committee studying how to implement the ban voters passed in November.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 4, 2003


    TALLAHASSEE -- The people of Florida have spoken: They want smoke-free Florida workplaces.

    Now the 160 members of the Florida Legislature must write a law to enact the constitutional amendment voters approved in November, and lobbyists are staking out ground on all sides.

    Interests as diverse as Veterans of Foreign Wars, bowling alleys, alcohol distributors and Tampa International Airport are seeking exceptions so they can allow smoking without violating the constitution. They each pleaded their case Monday to a Senate committee studying how to implement the citizens initiative.

    Health advocates threatened to sue if legislators don't strictly interpret the amendment. They distributed a seven-page legal memo from their lawyers and sent Stephen Grimes, a retired state Supreme Court justice, to lobby on their behalf.

    "Your friends and neighbors voted for this, and I hope you carry out its intent," Marty Larsen of Smoke-Free for Health, told senators.

    The first-round fight centers on what constitutes a "stand-alone bar," one of four voter-approved exceptions to the smoke-free workplace requirement.

    The complete text of Amendment 6, approved by the state Supreme Court but not on the ballot, defines a stand-alone bar as one where "the serving of food, if any, is merely incidental."

    Beverage retailers want to define "incidental" as 25 percent of sales. They have a powerful ally: Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, supports a smoking exception for establishments that get up to 20 percent of their revenue from food.

    "I think there ought to be some kind of a percentage," King said. "We contend there are stand-alone bars that may, for example, serve a bowl of chili at 10 o'clock at night."

    That idea rankles the Florida Restaurant Association, whose members now must be smoke-free and fear losing smoking customers to a nearby bar that has a limited food menu.

    The restaurant lobby wants to specify the food stand-alone bars can serve: pre-packaged peanuts, popcorn and pretzels.

    The restaurant lobby's narrow interpretation is supported by public health groups.

    The amendment bans smoking in veterans halls and bingo parlors, and outlaws designated smoking areas in airports and restaurants.

    Tampa's airport wants to keep its seven smoking areas and cocktail lounge that allows smokers. The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority dispatched its general counsel, Gigi Skipper, to the capital to plead its case.

    Skipper told senators that passenger convenience and safety are at stake. With some fliers forced to wait three hours between flights, she worried that incidents of "air rage" might increase if smokers can't indulge their habit before takeoff.

    Some senators were incredulous.

    "What's essential about a smoking lounge?" asked Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Pembroke Pines.

    The cigar industry, which has filed a lawsuit seeking to block Amendment 6, says the law would cripple the industry by outlawing the smoking of cigars in the workplace. Cigar factories must be able to test their wares, just as wine growers sip their samples.

    Dick Giese of Lakeland, state commander of the Disabled American Veterans, urged legislators not to ban smoking in American Legion halls and VFW lodges by defining them as workplaces.

    A lobbyist for bowling center operators, John Berglund of Arlington, Texas, said bowlers would risk injury by running outside in their slippery bowling shoes to grab a few puffs between spares and strikes.

    Legislators are acutely aware that the smoke-free amendment passed overwhelmingly, 71 percent to 29 percent.

    Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, said that if legislators don't impose firm antismoking laws, "I think there will be a price to pay. And there should be."

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