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Smoking ban chops business

Bar and restaurant owners complain of losing as much as 40 percent in profits since the state law took effect July 1.

Associated Press
Published December 21, 2003

MIAMI - Leo Perez isn't a smoker, and he never enjoyed serving drinks to those who are.

The 24-year-old bartender heads home from work now without cigarette fumes permeating his shirt, but also without as much tip money in his pockets.

Since Florida voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment banning smoking in workplaces, the air is definitely clearer in bars and restaurants. So, too, are tables in many cases, with some owners claiming profits dropping as much as 40 percent since the law took effect July 1. At least one diner has closed.

"I think it definitely was a health benefit," said Perez, who added that his tips have fallen 15 percent to 30 percent in the past six months. "But to say it was worth the sacrifice in money, that's a hard call."

Among antismoking advocates, many doubt the ban is costing businesses revenue. They maintain the issue is health and quality of life.

Smokers and some restaurant and bar owners contend the amendment infringes on their personal and professional freedoms.

A similar ban exists in six other states - New York, California, Connecticut, Utah, Vermont and Delaware - and becomes law in Maine on Jan. 1. At least 200 cities and counties in other states have individual bans in place as well, with hundreds more considering similar moves.

In Florida, where 71 percent of voters supported the amendment, smoking is banned in restaurants, excluding outdoor seating areas, and enclosed workplaces, including employee break rooms. Smoking is not permitted in bars that take in 10 percent or more of their receipts from food sales, although some exceptions exist, such as ones for cigar bars.

"The positives of the ban are immeasurable," said Sandra Kessler, executive director of the American Lung Association of Florida. "People can go into a restaurant or a workplace, and not having to breathe noxious fumes and secondhand smoke is wonderful. We hear nothing but praises about that."

Many are trying to do what they can to soothe their smoking clientele: A Fort Lauderdale bar soaks tobacco leaves in vodka, then sells the infused libation to smokers in need of a quick nicotine fix. Cathode Ray Club owner Larry Wald calls it a "nicotini."

An Augusta, Maine, restaurant built a patio. The patio now is covered by several feet of snow, and it might not be open when the ban begins.

One bar in upstate New York, where two snowstorms have dropped more than 4 feet of snow in some areas in recent weeks, sends patrons outside to smoke. If customers shovel while they puff, they get discounted drinks.

One Delaware bar owner who successfully fought a smoking fine is running for governor with repealing the ban as his platform. And some simply are choosing not to comply with the law.

"You can smoke in my restaurant," said Deborah Iannuzzi, owner of the Crab Trap in New Port Richey. "When cigarettes become illegal, then you can come talk to me."

Iannuzzi, 46, began smoking almost three decades ago. She said her restaurant complied with the Florida law for about 21/2 weeks but was forced to revert to former policies when bar receipts fell at least 68 percent and restaurant revenue fell 17 percent.

In September, she was issued a warning by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, so she hired an attorney and asked state officials for a formal administrative hearing. Iannuzzi said she hasn't heard from the state since.

State officials say at least 1,345 complaints have been received since the ban took effect. Investigators visited all the establishments listed in those complaints and followed up with another check in 30 days. If an establishment still openly allowed smoking, administrative citations were filed.

Department spokesman Meg Shannon said 18 citations have been issued so far; of those, eight asked for hearings, eight ignored them and two asked to settle with $250 fines, neither of which has been approved by state officials.

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