City Council again considers restaurant smoking ban
By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser City Hall Writer
Supporters of a smoking ban in restaurants are hoping that the latest bill before the Honolulu City Council will be sent back to committee for more work to keep the idea alive.
For the third time in a little more than six years, the council is wrestling with the proposal to ban smoking in O'ahu restaurants, but the effort has faltered again, leaving people on both sides of the issue fuming.
Tomorrow the council faces a vote that offers three choices: kill the bill, leave it on the council agenda in limbo or send it back to committee for more work.
The issue has emerged in different forms in 1995, 1997 and again this year but opposition from the visitor industry, hotels and restaurants and businesses resistant to new restrictions have killed it every time.
This has occurred as smoking bans have become more common across the country.
Clifford Chang, director for Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawai'i, said that as of Sept. 12, 2000, 329 municipalities had smoke-free workplace ordinances that include restaurants as did the entire state of California.
But last month, after more than four hours of mostly positive testimony, there was not enough council support to move the bill forward.
City Council Chairman Jon Yoshimura remains opposed to a smoking ban in restaurants even though it excludes bars and night clubs. Now, however, he is trying to pitch a compromise.
His plan would be to have four non-smoking days each week in restaurants Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and three smoking-permitted days: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. So far, few have supported the idea.
Yoshimura is one of a handful of City Council members to have received campaign contributions from the tobacco industry, according to state records. But he and others say the concerns of the restaurants and hotels are driving their decisions, not the tobacco industry or its contributions.
Those who want a ban may wait until next year when term limits will bring at least seven new faces to the council and the votes may be there for significant change rather than a compromise they don't support.
State campaign spending records indicate that Yoshimura received a little more than $1,200 from tobacco companies in 2000. But he said he wasn't aware of the contributions until the Advertiser asked about them.
"I've been voting against bills that would take away business freedom since I started on the council, particularly when debating smoking policy," Yoshimura said. "My position has absolutely nothing to do with campaign financing."
Yoshimura said he's disappointed that the council hasn't been able to work something out that addresses the concerns of the anti-smoking community while still considering business rights.
He said he's heard from people on both sides of the "very sensitive" issue. "I get e-mails calling me an idiot and the smartest guy on the planet, and I'm neither," Yoshimura said.
The Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawai'i helped coordinate a wide array of testimony last month when the ban was narrowly defeated.
Last month, the bill's author John Henry Felix voted in favor of the bill along with Steve Holmes, Gary Okino and Duke Bainum. Yoshimura, John DeSoto and Andy Mirikitani voted against it and Rene Mansho and Romy Cachola were absent. Five votes are needed to pass the measure.
Campaign spending records indicate that Mirikitani and Mansho also have received contributions of more than $2,200 from tobacco companies. Mansho, a smoker, has consistently voted against such restrictions. Cachola received contributions as a state lawmaker.
Mirikitani's record is mixed. Although he introduced a tougher bill years ago, he didn't support the idea in 1997 when it died in committee. He did support the bill the council passed in 1995 to partially ban restaurant smoking. That bill was vetoed by Mayor Jeremy Harris, who said it amounted to over-regulation of business.
The coalition's Chang said many studies have been done in places that have enacted stricter smoking restrictions and disprove the economic argument that businesses will be hurt.
"If you actually look at sales tax data, there has been no place that's demonstrated any kind of decrease in income related to a smoking in the workplace bill and this is not just in the United States," Chang said.
Pat McCain, president of the Hawai'i Restaurant Association, said that he'd like to see a compromise worked out but believes it's important "to allow the business person an opportunity to make a business decision."
"I'm optimistic that we can rise above the emotion and find something that goes in the direction that the proponents want to go," McCain said. One improvement he sees is that the current bill would allow smoking outdoors.
McCain said he believes restaurant owners would support "a more reasonable compromise" to give everybody three to five years to plan if they will continue to allow smoking and then require them to set up a separate room that would be ventilated separately for smokers.
McCain discounts the influence of the tobacco companies at the county level. "I think that their involvement is insignificant."
Felix, a long-time supporter of the smoking ban, began the push for this latest bill in August. Last year, Lorillard Tobacco Co. sent $200 to his campaign, and he returned the check.
Felix wrote, "One of my top priorities as an elected official has been to prohibit smoking in the work place and at certain public venues and to restrict the advertising and promotion of tobacco products near schools. Because I am not a supporter of tobacco use, I am compelled to return your check uncashed."
On Friday, Felix said he hopes that sending the bill back to committee tomorrow will give it another chance this year. "My hope is that it will be referred back to committee to give me an opportunity to fine tune it to address some of the concerns of several of my colleagues."
Felix rejects the split days of smoking but believes that allowing smoking outdoors is a reasonable compromise.
Julian Lipsher, of the state Health Department, said he appreciates Yoshimura's efforts to find a compromise but called the split smoking/non-smoking days unwieldy. "We believed it would pose a substantial enforcement problem."
Lipsher said such a law would be confusing to the public. He also said the move doesn't address the concerns of employees who would have to remain in a smoking workplace.
Ideta Restaurant owner Sharon Toma, a Japanese restaurant in Kalihi, said she's glad the council is holding off on the ban. "I don't think this is the right time. The economy is so bad right now; restaurants are shutting down," Toma said. She said she has smoking and non-smoking sections and accommodates customers without problems.
Bainum said it's "regrettable and more" that the council hasn't enacted the ban. As for tomorrow's vote, Bainum holds out little hope for a last-minute compromise. "Unfortunately, I think it's going to go up in smoke."
Reach Robbie Dingeman at email@example.com or 525-8070.