New Jersey bill targets most indoor smoking
If a pack of legislators has its way, smoking will be snuffed out in just about every indoor public place in New Jersey.
On the heels of Gov. McGreevey's proposed 40-cent-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax, a measure is advancing in the Legislature that could mean no more cigarettes with beer at most bars, no more smoke hovering over the gaming areas in casinos, and the end of restaurant smoking sections.
Attempts in the Legislature even to consider a smoking ban in the state have been extinguished year after year, without as much as a hearing. But last week, the antismoking forces had their day, getting their bill through an Assembly committee for the first time.
With the passage of such a law, patterned after a New York City ordinance, New Jersey would follow California and Delaware, the only states to have approved such a sweeping smoking ban. The bill's sponsors are Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) and Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer).
While more hearings are to be held, Assembly Majority Leader Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden) said he expected the bill, in some form, to make it through the Legislature this year.
"It's long overdue that New Jersey addresses this issue," said Roberts, who owns two restaurants and a nightclub, all in Cape May County. One restaurant is smoke-free, and the other allows smoking at the bar. The nightclub permits smoking.
The key to passing the bill, he said, is to strike a balance that would make a law fair to the hospitality industry while still providing for what the bill seeks: smoke-free environments for workers and patrons.
"At the end of the day, we're going to find balance," Roberts said.
"I think the bill is fabulous," said Larry Downs, director of New Jersey Breathes, a coalition of 50 health groups.
With the backing of the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, and a raft of other organizations that target tobacco, Downs said this is the law they want and one the state needs.
Leading the fight against the bill are the New Jersey Restaurant Association and the New Jersey Licensed Beverage Association, groups that represent the places where people eat, drink and smoke.
"The association's position is that we would not oppose a measure that would be effective on a statewide basis without any exceptions or exclusions," said Deborah Dowdell, executive vice president of the restaurant association. "It's only in that way that the playing field would be level."
But the bill has exceptions, so the group will continue its opposition. Fraternal groups, such as the Elks, are excluded, as are cigar bars and owner-operated bars with no more than three partners.
Up to 35 percent of the state's restaurants have gone smoke-free voluntarily, and more are doing the same or shrinking their smoking sections, Dowdell said.
"That, to me, is the marketplace working," she said.
Restaurant association president John Byrne, owner of La Campagne in Cherry Hill, made his restaurant smoke-free three years ago in response to customer requests.
"There are mixed feelings, obviously," he said about the bill. But Byrne said allowing exemptions that would let others benefit at the expense of restaurants would be unfair.
In Delaware, where the ban went into effect Nov. 27, state officials are learning as they go about the issues that come with such a law. Bar owners have resisted, and many have attempted to exploit an exemption by reinventing themselves as private clubs.
"It's difficult for them because smoking and drinking have long gone together in bars," said Kevin E. Charles, chief of the Health Systems Protection Section at the Delaware Division of Public Health. "It's a cultural change as well as a change in the way of doing business for them."
He urged any state considering such a ban to ensure adequate attention is paid to how the law would be enforced and by whom. Charles' agency has responsibility for enforcing the ban, though the Labor Department enforces smoke-free workplace regulations and the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control has the most dealings with bars.
"This takes resources to enforce," Charles said. "Unfortunately, we didn't get any."