Nebraska eateries want customers to decide smoking policy
WATERLOO, Neb. (AP) -- Ben Stenglein took a drag of his cigarette as he paced behind the bar of his family's steakhouse. He soon exhaled, sending tufts of smoke into the dimly lit lounge.
For 30 years, he has operated Farmer Brown's in Waterloo, a popular steakhouse within 15 minutes of Omaha that is best known for its prime rib and down-home hospitality.
The restaurant has built up a large group of regulars, many of whom like to enjoy a cigarette with cocktails or dinner.
Ash trays sit on the small tables that crowd the lounge, while the 500-seat restaurant also has separate dining rooms for smokers and nonsmokers.
That could soon change with a proposal before the Legislature that would ban smoking in eateries in Nebraska. Stenglein and many other restaurant owners believe their customers, not state lawmakers, should dictate whether smoking is allowed.
"You have to have some congeniality toward your customers," said Stenglein, a smoker for 35 years who recently decided to limit smoking to only the restaurant's lounge on weekends in response to some customer complaints.
Nebraska restaurants have had three years to mull over the idea of a smoking ban. Sen. Nancy Thompson of Papillion first proposed such a ban in 2000 and has again this year. She thinks her proposal has a good shot at becoming law. The Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee will consider Thompson's bill (LB546) following a public hearing Thursday at the state Capitol.
Thompson said she simply wants to clear the air of secondhand smoke for restaurant employees and nonsmoking customers.
"It's a public health issue," Thompson said. "We know so much more today about environmental tobacco smoke."
Secondhand smoke is responsible for at least 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year, as well as many other deaths due to cardiovascular problems, according to the American Lung Association. Cigarette smoke also is responsible for thousands of asthma cases and lower respiratory tract infections.
Some states, including California and Florida, as well as major cities, like New York City and Dallas, already have similar smoking bans.
Under Thompson's proposal, smoking would be prohibited at any public place that regularly serves meals in Nebraska. That encompasses any business that uses a kitchen to prepare food, including many bars.
Excluding bars, the proposal would affect more than 1,100 sit-down restaurants and about 36,000 employees, said Mark Lutz, an administrator and lobbyist with the Nebraska Restaurant Association.
On a given day, restaurants serve about 186,000 customers who smoke. Nebraska smokers account for an estimated $200 million in sales annually, about 11 percent of the industry's $1.76 billion in sales in the state. An estimated 20 percent of the state's 1.7 million are smokers.
A big concern about a smoking ban is how much it would hurt rural cafes and diners that may be the only eateries in their towns, Lutz said.
"They're struggling as is," he said. "They're just trying to maintain."
Smokers make up most of the clientele at the Western Convenience Cafe along Interstate 80 in Hershey. Manager Becky Cheloha has seen businesses come and go over the last 15 years and knows what the smoking ban could mean.
"We wouldn't have any," Cheloha said, referring to her cafe's customers, many of whom are truckers who are barred from smoking in their vehicles.
Thompson said she doesn't see it that way.
"Nebraskans can adapt to the hour that they eat," she said.
Most importantly though, she sees the health risks as outweighing any other factors.
It was the restaurant owner's own health that led to a ban on smoking at the Round Robin in Dalton. Owner John Whittle, a nonsmoker, started to prohibit smoking in his restaurant in 1998, shortly after he was diagnosed with throat cancer believed to have been caused by secondhand smoke from his customers.
"I don't care if they don't like it. They don't need to come," Whittle said about his smoking customers who complain about the ban.
Even if a smoking ban is imposed on all restaurants, smokers will still go out to eat, Stenglein said.
"Well, what would they do? Stay home and cook a steak?" he said. "We do the dishes for free."