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Bill would enlarge restaurant non-smoking sections

The House approves a proposal to shift the balance between smokers and non-smokers.

By JO BECKER and CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2000


Clearwater resident Dave Campbell smoked two packs a day until "the miracle happened" one morning in 1988: He just flat out quit cigarettes.

But he could always find smokers at restaurants.

"For the first two years I liked the smell of smoke," he remembers with amazement.

By the third year, "It began to offend me. Actually, it's not offending, it's painful. It burns my throat."

The state Legislature is about to make it a lot easier to get a table in smoke-free sections of Florida restaurants.

Right now, restaurants of 50 or more seats are allowed to give 65 percent of their tables over to smokers, leaving 35 percent to non-smokers. Under a bill that won preliminary approval by the House on Wednesday, restaurants would have to increase non-smoking seating to 50 percent by October. By October 2001, restaurants of all sizes must set aside at least 65 percent of seating for non-smokers.

"This is a fairness issue," said Rep. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs. The Senate has already given its preliminary approval to the proposal. Gov. Jeb Bush hasn't seen the proposal and does not have a position on it, according to his spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst. The measure represents a significant expansion of the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act. Passed in 1985, the law prohibited smoking in public places except in designated smoking areas. It also set standards for smoking seating in restaurants, but it exempted restaurants that seated fewer than 50 patrons.

"This is a major accomplishment," said Jean Gonzalez, lobbyist for the American Heart Association. "Our goal eventually is to have smoke-free restaurants, and I think this moves us in that direction."

The proposal represents a compromise between the powerful Florida Restaurant Association and anti-smoking groups.

Fearing profits would drop, restaurants have vigorously fought off past efforts to beef up the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act. In recent years, anti-smoking groups have unsuccessfully pushed to lift a ban that prohibits local governments from imposing restaurant smoking regulations that are tougher than the state's.

"Both sides said, let's quit this battle and meet in the middle," said Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant Association. "In a lot of cases, this will be business as usual for us because a lot of restaurants have already cut back their smoking areas."

Restaurants had good reason to show good faith in negotiations: For the second year in a row, the Legislature is looking at cutting a per-drink tax restaurants pay.

Around Tampa Bay, managers at several restaurants said their smoking sections have shrunk dramatically because of the decline of smoking by their customers. Some say they still have longer waiting lines for non-smoking tables.

Peter Kreuziger, owner of Bon Appetit in Dunedin, quit smoking in 1979 and wanted to ban smoking in his restaurant for a long time. "I knew it would affect us adversely financially."

But last November, with only four tables left for smokers, he took the leap: No smoking inside the restaurant, only in the outdoor seating area.

"Much to my surprise, the business didn't decrease, it increased."

The prospect of new requirements didn't bother Skip Nalley, manager at Bob Evans in the Countryside section of Clearwater. "We exceed those levels already," Nalley said.

Some restaurateurs say that smoking customers still dine more leisurely, but most have backed away from the idea that smokers drink more, eat more and tip more.

At Chili's Bar and Grill, a 270-seat restaurant also in Countryside, the current division is about 50-50 counting the bar, which is smoker's territory, said manager Scott Whitmill. That usually means more of a wait for non-smokers, but he said the restaurant could adjust to the new rules. "It wouldn't hurt, probably make our lounge busier," he said.

Restaurants that don't comply with the new rule would be subject to discipline and a fine of between $100 and $500 per violation. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation is in charge of regulating restaurants.

But Dover, of the restaurant association, said it will be difficult to enforce. "We keep joking about how they will do this -- will there be smoking cops?"

In Tallahassee, Rep. Bob Starks, R-Casselberry, thinks Florida should follow California and impose a total ban on smoking in restaurants.

"We banned smoking on the airlines," said Starks, a pilot. "There was no great outcry."

Campbell, the Clearwater man who values smoke-free restaurants, suggested that people like him will press lawmakers for a ban sometime soon.

"We'll be one happy community of smokers and non-smokers for the next two years," he said.

But after that, "Everybody will be so fed up, restaurateurs and . . . the customers will flood the Legislature" and ask for a ban.

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