Fiery Feud

Some people want smoke-free restaurants. others toss the idea out the window.

February, 2014

It may only be a matter of time before all restaurants in Hawaii ban smoking indoors. But for that to happen, certain politicians and businesspeople need to butt out. Honolulu City County members over the past six years have introduced a number of bills that prohibit restaurant smoking.

“There are individual restaurants, such as Angelo Pietro, Roy’s, Alan Wong’s, Sam Choy’s that are smoke-free,” says Clifford Chang, director of the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawaii, a statewide alliance of businesses and agencies that strives to reduce tobacco use in Hawaii. Those restaurants are among the approximately 289 eateries statewide that do not allow smoking indoors. “Restaurants know that smoking affects the taste of food,” Chang says. “If you’re trying to market yourself for the quality of food, big restaurants don’t usually allow smoking.”

Smoking-ban opponents say Hawaii’s roughly 50,000 restaurant workers already are struggling with slow sales due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A ban would simply worsen the situation. “My board voted to oppose the ban on smoking in restaurants,” says Patrick McCain, president of the 300-member Hawaii Restaurant Association. “We’re not outright opposed to bans, and some of us have gone nonsmoking voluntarily. But we don’t think that they should be dictating to us any more than they do already.”

The local food-and-beverage industry paints a faux photo of economic doom and gloom, says Julian Lipsher, public health educator for the Tobacco Prevention and Education Program, a division of the Hawaii Department of Health. “California Pizza Kitchen made the decision to go non-smoking nationwide. The 300 Starbucks stores in Japan also made that decision,” Lipsher says.

National studies show that smoke-free restaurant ordinances do not hurt restaurants. A 1999 Journal of American Medical Association report by the University of California San Francisco surveyed hotels and restaurants in six cities and three states, where tourism authorities protested against smoke-free restaurant ordinances. The result: smoke-free policies had no major effect on revenues in California, Vermont, San Francisco and Boulder; hotel revenues significantly increased in Utah, Los Angeles, Mesa and New York City; and in Flagstaff, Ariz., revenues increased slightly.

Opponents say Hawaii is different. The tourism industry is heavily dependent on Japanese visitors. “Clearly, Japanese tourists are important in Hawaii, but they’re equally important in New York and California,” Chang says. “None of those places suffered any degree whatsoever.” According to a May 2001 study by Japan Tobacco Inc., smoking among adults in Japan fell for the sixth consecutive year, dropping 0.2 percent to a record low of 32.7 percent.

A smoking ban may be on its way, but in small doses. “It’ll come down to timing, when the bills become effective,” McCain says. “It’ll come down to smoking in bars, smoking outdoors and whether there are provisions for air-quality systems.”

Council member John Henry Felix last November authored a bill that would have immediately banned smoking in all Oahu restaurants, except bars and nightclubs. The bill died in a 5-4 vote. Immediately a new proposal, Bill 99, was written. The bill – which would take effect six months after council members approve – bans smoking indoors but exempts bars and nightclubs. The council’s Planning and Public Safety Committee on Jan. 8 approved the measure in a 3-1 vote. Revisions to the bill included: a smoking ban in all restaurants, except in open-air areas completely separated from indoor dining rooms; a separate ventilation system for bars and nightclubs that are adjacent to restaurants; and ceiling-to-floor walls that divide restaurants from bars and nightclubs. A grace period that would allow restaurants time to adjust wasn’t set at the time of this writing. A public hearing on the bill was slated for Jan. 30.

Maui, Kauai and Big Island leaders in early January also ignited a proposal for smoke-free restaurants. Council member Jimmy Tokioka (a restaurant owner) took lead on Kauai, while Maui council member Dain Kane sent surveys to restaurant owners.

“I think what’s happening is, whatever the reality is, our society has decided that changes are coming,” McCain says. “Change the effective date. If you can do something, don’t make it come into effect right away.”

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Cathy S. Cruz