Most content to let restauranteurs decide own smoking policy

The Columbus Dispatch – March 4, 1998

While Californians chafe under a state-imposed smoking ban, bar and restaurant owners in Columbus are happy that lawmakers have decided to butt out of the issue in Ohio.

Nearly four years ago, a group of business owners rallied to challenge a proposed ban on smoking in virtually all public buildings, except bars. Owners won their case in 1994 before Environmental Judge Richard Pfeiffer, who ruled the Franklin County Board of Health exceeded its authority. Since then, the debate has continued, but no one has taken further action to ban smoking. Today, restaurant smoking policies run from all-out bans to more common, segregated smoking areas.

Cameron Mitchell, the owner of six area restaurants, said fewer than 1-in-5 tables is set aside for smokers, half that of a decade ago.

”It’s a struggle,” he said. ”Our goal is to take care of all customers . . . but we have not found a system that’s perfect.”

A recent study sponsored by the Ohio Restaurant Association and paid for by cigarette giant Philip Morris Inc., showed Ohio restaurant patrons like things the way they are.

Only 25 percent of respondents said the government should set smoking policies. And while most Ohioans don’t smoke, they think smokers should be accommodated in restaurants and hotels.

The survey, conducted in December by Saperstein Associates, comes amid a furor over a smoking moratorium in California bars. Three years ago, California’s legislature banned smoking in all workplaces. The moratorium applied to bars in January, but many owners have ignored the new rules, saying they hurt business.

According to Nation’s Restaurant News, proprietors ”kept right on passing out ashtrays,” despite the threat of fines of up to $7,000 for permitting smoking. In response, the California assembly voted last month to permanently exempt bars from the smoking ban; the state senate has yet to vote.

Of 500 Ohioans surveyed, 26 percent said they smoked. But 83 percent said smokers and nonsmokers should be accommodated in hospitality settings.

Restaurateurs say the findings validate their belief they should continue to set their own policies.

”The survey results clearly indicate broad support for a reasonable, common-sense approach to the establishment of smoking policies,” said Joan Hendricks, restaurant association chairwoman and owner of the Plaza Inn in Mount Victory, Ohio. ”Determining smoking policies is hardly different than selecting what hours the business will operate or what will be . . . on the menu.”

Ralph Denisco opened Chapin’s Restaurant at Crosswoods in Worthington in November and banned smoking from the start.

”It’s only a matter of time before it becomes law, anyway,” Denisco said. ”We struggled with it for a long time but felt we needed to make a statement.”

He’s unmoved by patrons who leave or write to protest the ban.

”It makes for a more enjoyable eating experience,” he said. ”When you see smokers, they don’t smoke while they’re eating. They smoke when they’re finished and someone next to them is just getting their appetizer.”