Smoking ban initiative has rival
TALLAHASSEE -- With an unlimited bankroll provided by tobacco companies, restaurants and small business owners, a new coalition has declared war against a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban smoking in all restaurants and workplaces.
The coalition's weapon: A separate proposed amendment that would effectively snuff out the smoking ban amendment.
The new group fighting the proposed smoking ban has an innocuous name, the Coalition for Responsible Solutions. While its amendment would not change existing law, the wording offers few clues to voters that the aim is to block efforts to tighten restrictions on smoking.
Instead, the amendment backed by the tobacco industry and restaurants says it prohibits smoking in some areas and "restricts smoking in restaurants and other enclosed indoor workplaces." It says business owners would have the discretion to designate limited smoking areas.
But the new amendment's backers are clear about their mission. They said Tuesday they want to block the smoking ban amendment, and they are willing to drop their amendment if the other side abandons its effort.
"I would prefer not to have it in the Constitution," said Tom Slade, the former Florida Republican Party chairman who heads the Coalition for Responsible Solutions. "But business owners should have the right to make choices that affect their future and the welfare of customers. "If I were the other side, I'd lose some of the passion for my cause," Slade said. "It is hard work to do one of these petition campaigns, particularly when you are doing it on behalf of some volunteer groups of citizens. We think our initiative may be strong enough to make the entire issue go away."
But the "Smoke Free for Health" coalition backed by the American Lung, Cancer and Heart associations, has a head start on its powerful opponents. The smoking ban forces have raised nearly $2-million and gathered more than 500,000 signatures -- more than the 488,722 required to place a proposed amendment on the November ballot.
The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguements on the wording of the smoking ban amendment Thursday.
If both amendments make it to the ballot in November, Florida voters are almost certain to be confused because of their similar wording.
Slade insisted the new group is not trying to mislead the public, but the supporters of the smoking ban disagree.
"They should call themselves the Committee for Irresponsible Solutions," said Martin Larsen, volunteer chairman of Smoke-Free for Health.
Slade said his group has already started collecting signatures -- in the smoking areas of many restaurants.
Financing for the new pro smoking group would come from the state's restaurants, hotels, Associated Industries of Florida, as well as tobacco companies.
Carol Dover, head of the Florida Restaurant Association, said many restaurant owners are concerned that they would lose business if the smoking ban passes. She said California restaurants suffered a 30 percent decline in business after the passage of a similar law.
"Consumers vote with their feet when they choose whether to walk in a restaurant," Dover said. "This is not an area the government should dictate."
Dover said the antismoking group is trying to use the Constitution to override well-reasoned state laws that restrict smoking.
"Restaurant owners and their patrons deserve a choice," Dover said.
Tommy Waits, head of the Florida Hotel and Motel Association, said current law works and should not be changed.
Under current law, smoking is banned in all common areas used by the public such as elevators, educational facilities, health care facilities, public buildings and on public transit.
Hotels must designate smoking and no smoking rooms, and restaurants must designate at least 65 percent of their seating as nonsmoking.
Restaurants now have the discretion to ban smoking entirely. The antismoking amendment would ban all smoking in all restaurants, but allow it in standalone bars.
Slade said a complete ban on smoking could adversely affect tourism because many of the state's foreign tourists come from countries where more smoking is common.
Noting that he quit smoking 15 years ago, Slade said he is more concerned about seeing business owners who have saved and scrimped hurt than he is about the health consequences of smoking.
"We won't do anything to change public health habits," he said. "But it would rearrange the economics of some businesses."