Bill would expand smoking ban
AUGUSTA- Last September, Maine smokers were barred from lighting up in restaurants. This year, they may lose the right to puff away in bars.
A bill before the Legislature seeks to close a loophole that caused scores of restaurant owners to apply for lounge licenses after the restaurant smoking ban took effect. It also is aimed at making the same rules apply to all establishments that serve food and drinks.
AT A GLANCE
A summary of the proposed bill:
''Current law prohibits smoking in the enclosed areas of restaurants and most other public places, but does not prohibit smoking in taverns, lounges and certain other places where food and alcohol are sold.
"This bill prohibits smoking in the enclosed areas of places licensed for the sale of food and alcohol while they are open for those purposes.''
''It's a complete leveling of the playing field,'' said the chief sponsor, Sen. Peter Mills, R-Skowhegan, a leading smoking foe in the State House.
Rather than imposing smoking prohibitions in stages, Mills believes the Legislature should pass an all-encompassing law and allow exceptions where it deems appropriate.
About 100 restaurant owners, desperate to keep their businesses alive after the smoking ban kicked in, applied for lounge licenses so they would not lose their smoking patrons, said Dick Grotton, executive vice president of the Maine Restaurant Association.
Restaurants have been hurt by the existing ban, bars and lounges stand to take a hit from the proposal to expand it, and ''pool halls are in great jeopardy of being totally annihilated,'' said Grotton.
The owner-manager of the Brookside Tavern in Brewer, when told of Mills' bill Wednesday, said she was interested in starting a petition drive in opposition.
''That's just going to close us all down,'' said Jane Worcester. ''I'm not going to tolerate it. We're just a small business and if you don't like smoking, go someplace else.''
Worcester described her 35-seat establishment as a neighborhood bar that caters to a steady, blue-collar clientele. In addition, it sells food on site and for take-out. She said that if the state must ban smoking in bars, it should designate a percentage as smoke-free and the rest to allow smoking.
The restaurant group has long believed the choice on smoking rules should be left to individual businesses. But, with smoking bans under discussion in the State House, it pleaded for rules that apply evenly to all businesses.
The group will likely take a neutral stand on the new bill when it comes before committee, while reminding lawmakers that bans imposed so far have hurt the industry, said Grotton.
The American Lung Association of Maine will support Mills' bill, in line with its longstanding belief that all places where the public can go should be off-limits to smoking, said spokeswoman Jane Ann NcNeish. And the public includes 100,000 Mainers who have lung diseases, she said.
''I don't know how the legislators will feel about it,'' McNeish said. ''They understand (the restaurant smoking ban) was to protect people, and if there's a loophole, I'd think they'd want to repair it.''
Rep. Royce Perkins, R-Penobscot, plans to speak against the bill when it comes up for debate because he believes such regulations should be left to towns and cities. Perkins was reluctant to guess how the Legislature will vote.
''Predictions are dangerous,'' he said, quoting Mark Twain, ''especially predictions of the future.''
In addition to the smoking ban, lawmakers last year enacted a law to make it harder for minors to get their hands on cigarettes in stores.
As of Jan. 1, stores were no longer allowed to provide direct public access to single cigarette packs. Some distributors have replaced the old cigarette dispensers with new, clear-plastic dispensers allowing only clerks to get their hands on cigarette packs.
Some stores say they are happy with the new law because it prevents theft not only by minors, but by adults as well.
Rep. David Etnier, D-Harpswell, is co-sponsoring Mills' bill.