Bill that would allow Oahu, Hawaii, bar owners to post 'smoking permitted' signs if they want to allow patrons, employees to smoke indoors, advances past state House committee

HONOLULU, Hawaii , February 17, 2012 (press release) – Oahu nightclub and bar owners might be given the choice to allow smoking in their establishments.

The state House committee that heard testimony on the issue Thursday wasn't entirely convinced exempting adult-only businesses from the statewide workplace smoking ban is a good idea. But after hearing from about 100 bar owners and smokers, members advanced the measure with reservations.

The bill would allow bar owners to post "smoking permitted" signs if they want their patrons and employees to be allowed to smoke indoors.

The workplace smoking ban was passed in 2006 to protect employees and patrons from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. Only a handful of businesses are exempt, including designated hotel rooms, retail tobacco stores and movie sets. Most other indoor workplaces are smoke free — and smokers must move 20 feet away from buildings before lighting up.

The Hawaii Bar Owners Association and Hawaii Smokers Alliance asked for an exemption in the original bill and have been lobbying fiercely to get an exemption ever since.

Many of the most vocal proponents of the ban, such as the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawaii and the American Cancer Society, urged lawmakers to keep the existing law intact.

"Smoking and tobacco use is Hawaii and the nation's leading preventable cause of illness and death," said Julian Lipsher, speaking for the state Department of Health. "In Hawaii, this translates to about 1,100 resident deaths yearly and impacts the state approximately $630 million in costs each year for medical, health care and lost productivity."

The Hawaii Bar Owners Association said the ban cost businesses millions last year.

Spokesman and bar owner Bill Comerford, a nonsmoker, said the economic downturn already presents a challenge for small businesses and that the smoking ban adds to the burden. Bar owners might not necessarily want smoking in their establishments, but they do want customers inside ordering drinks, he said.

"When you put people outside, immediately it's a downturn in the cycle of the business for all bars," he noted.

Michael Zehner, of the Hawaii Smokers Alliance, urged lawmakers to follow Nevada's lead in relaxing its statewide smoking ban.

"Nevada realized this made economic sense for them," he said. "They're very concerned with their tourism, their economy, and they have now allowed bars to be exempted."

Waikiki business owner Russell Yamashita said the exemption would keep people from coming out of nightclubs to smoke, then getting into trouble on the street. He also said it would stop forcing law-abiding customers into alleys and other dangerous areas to smoke.

"We don't want to have nice tourists running around in the middle of the night trying to find a spot to smoke in. It endangers them," he said.

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