Bill Seeks Smoke-Free Restaurants
Lincoln - Mike Salkin of Omaha says he has the right to dine at restaurants without having his eyes water, his throat become irritated and his nose subject to sneezes.
Salkin, an investment adviser, and others want the state's restaurants to be free of smoke. They are rooting for a bill expected to come up for debate today or Wednesday in the Nebraska Legislature.
"This is not a smokers' rights issue," Salkin said. "It is a health issue. A smoker has the right to smoke as long as they don't infringe on the rights of others who do not smoke."
The measure would ban smoking in family-style restaurants. It would affect about 1,400 sit-down restaurants and small-town cafes. Bars, including those attached to restaurants, would be exempt.
Legislative Bill 750 was introduced by State Sen. Nancy Thompson. It is on the first of three rounds of legislative debate.
The Papillion lawmaker acknowledged that the bill's supporters will have a tough time navigating past the tobacco lobby, especially in light of last week's rejection of a 30-cent increase on the cigarette tax.
"It's kind of a David-and-Goliath thing, but I think there's a lot of public support out there," she said.
The bill is the latest assault on a habit that has been under the nation's microscope for years. In California, it is illegal to smoke in both bars and restaurants. Vermont, Utah and Maine ban smoking in restaurants.
Studies have shown that secondhand smoke leads to heart disease, respiratory problems, lung cancer and asthma attacks, Thompson said.
"I think the policy debate is about who is accommodated. Is it the smoker, or is it the public?" she asked. "Smokers can smoke before and after they get there. They're just being asked not to smoke for an hour. While other people with respiratory illnesses can't go in at all," she said.
The ban is opposed by the Nebraska Restaurant Association, which said private businesses should have the right to accommodate smokers and nonsmokers.
"Twenty-five percent of our customers that eat in sit-down restaurants smoke. We just can't lose that business," said Richard Lutz, president of the Lincoln-based association.
He said such a ban would have a big impact on small towns where there is only one cafe to serve as a local gathering place.
He also said that restaurants already are forced to address the problem through separate dining areas and improved ventilation.
Another law is not needed, Lutz said.
"The issue can be solved through common courtesy. If I'm a smoker, I can't sit anywhere but the smoking section - that's common courtesy," Lutz said.
Both Thompson and Salkin said an important reason to support such a ban is to protect the state's young people, many of whom work in restaurants. The public has a duty to protect such workers, Salkin said.
An estimated 393,000 people smoke in Nebraska. The state collects about $40 million each year in cigarette taxes.
State health officials have said smoking and related illnesses cost Nebraska at least $40 million a year. An estimated 2,400 state residents die each year of smoking-related illnesses.