[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Navy veteran Robert Bleemer, 71, lights up at VFW Post 4321 in Hyde Park on Wednesday. Lawmakers approved a measure that prohibits smoking in most public places, but exempted certain establishments. VFW Posts, for example, are exempt from the law.
ST. PETERSBURG - The C-rations. Every one contained a cardboard pack of four cigarettes.
"And when they said, "Smoke 'em if you got 'em', just about everybody did," Allan Holmes said Tuesday as he sat by the bar at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 39 on Central Avenue, the third-oldest active VFW Post in the country.
Holmes, the commander of Post 39, started smoking those C-ration cigarettes just before he shipped out for two tours of duty in Vietnam as a combat medic. And he still smokes. Marlboros.
"Ninety percent of our members or their husbands or wives smoke," said Holmes, 53. "If we couldn't smoke here, we'd either have to close down because nobody would come, or we'd have to build a deck outside. And we just don't have the money.
"Thankfully, we won't have to do that."
That's because groups like the VFW, Disabled American Veterans and American Legion won an exemption Tuesday when the Florida Legislature passed the law implementing the state constitutional amendment that voters approved in November to ban smoking in indoor workplaces, restaurants and bars.
There are other exemptions as well. The smoking ban, which takes effect July 1, excludes fraternal and civic groups that staff their own events, restaurants that have outdoor patios, and so-called "stand alone" bars that serve incidental snacks.
To qualify as stand alone, a bar would not be able to gross more than 10 percent of its total sales from food. And the bar would have to prove that every three years with an audit.
Some lawmakers worried that audits would hurt small businesses, but many bar owners say they already keep detailed records. And people forced to smoke outside at a restaurant may find their way to their establishments.
Colin Breen, owner of the Four Green Fields Irish pub in Tampa, sells a lot of corned beef and cabbage, Irish stew and sandwiches. But it's the Guinness and Kilkenny that account for most of his sales; food is less than 10 percent.
"We're not a restaurant; we're a pub," Breen said. "And since we're a stand alone, it'll probably bring us more business. If people want to smoke, they can come here. As for auditing, we do that every year anyway. And we're just about ready to franchise the pub, so were auditing right now."
Greg Pugh, owner of Ringside Cafe in St. Petersburg, said his restaurant/blues club sells far too much food to quality as a stand alone. So he'll probably build an outdoor deck or patio to accommodate smokers.
It's the exemptions that puzzle him.
"We'll comply with the law," he said, "but I feel like it's a double standard. If they passed a law to prevent lung cancer from second-hand smoke, why not just have no smoking indoors period? Why have it one place, and not another? They're tap-dancing around the issue."
An exemption was also granted to travelers making stops during international flights. The exemption does not apply to Tampa International Airport, but that doesn't mean smokers there won't be affected.
TIA currently allows smoking in nine designated smoking areas, in addition to smoking areas at airport restaurants and the airport hotel. But as of June 1, smoking areas at the restaurants and hotel will no longer be allowed. "We're just doing it early," said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.
As for the nine smoking rooms, Miller said TIA will close them July 1 and then decide whether to convert the rooms to retail tobacco outlets, where people could smoke.
"Our smoking lounges are heavily utilized," Miller said. "But as of July 1, those people cannot smoke inside the terminal building."
Back at VFW Post 39, Holmes said it was the lobbying effort of the VFW and other service and social groups that helped earn them an exemption.
"We just want to be able to come here and do what we want," he said. "And if we want to fire up a cigarette and we're not bothering anybody, I think we've earned the right to do that."
Exemptions to the smoking ban
Charitable, nonprofit or veterans organizations
Stand alone bars (bars with food sales of 10 percent or less)
Outdoor patios at restaurants
Designated rooms in hotels and motels
Home businesses that don't provide child care or health care
A section of customs areas for passengers at international airports