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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 19, 2001

Restaurant staffs face dilemma

By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer

Wendy Snowprice worries about the second-hand smoke she breathes and the headaches that accompany her home after her double shift at Murphy's Bar & Grill on Saturdays. But the hostess and waitress worries even more about how recent city proposals to ban smoking in Honolulu restaurants could affect business in an unstable economy.

Although Jay Niebuhr, a bartender at Murphy's Bar & Grill, says he feels the effects of second-hand smoke, he prefers limits to an outright ban on smoking in restaurants.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Murphy's has a nonsmoking section for customers, separated from the smoking area by nothing more than an invisible line between booths. Despite good ventilation, the odor of cigarettes hangs over the jovial lunch crowd. Getting a table at noon without a reservation is impossible. The alternative? The even smokier bar.

"We're tired of polluting our lungs, but we don't want to lose business," said Snowprice. "A lot of people come here because they can smoke."

For the fourth time in three years, the City Council last week rejected a restaurant smoking ban by a 5-4 vote. Councilman John Henry Felix, who introduced the bill, has since co-authored a revised proposal that would take effect six months after approval and would allow smoking only in outdoor areas. The soonest the council could vote on that proposal would be early next year.

Some in the restaurant business, however, say that although there are concerns about health effects they remain tentative about the possible impact on business, particularly in the wake of the economic downturn after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I hate to see anything, especially in our economy today, that has the potential to damage business," said Don Murphy, owner of Murphy's Bar & Grill. "And I don't particularly like the government stepping in and making decisions for businesses." But, he conceded, "it's got to be addressed."

The issue of cigarette smoke in the workplace, particularly bars and restaurants, rose to the forefront in Honolulu last spring, even before the City Council bills were introduced. That's when the state Health Department developed and produced a 30-second television spot that advocates protecting workers from involuntary exposure to smoke in the workplace.

"This was not a strategy to support political action; it's a community education effort," said Julian Lipsher, coordinator of the Health Department's Tobacco and Prevention Education Unit. "If anything, it was good timing. But clearly, increasing the number of nonsmoking seats and protecting workers is on the public's mind."

Mihae Mukaida, waitress at Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, says, "As long as you have a separation between smokers and nonsmokers, it works."

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

The Health Department developed the spot in conjunction with the local restaurant employees' union, said Lipsher, "because the union is interested in the health of its employees." Restaurants, he said, are simply afraid of change.

"In many cases, they're just frozen," he said. "Once the change is made, they will breathe a sigh of relief. And they will breathe clean air."

Some restaurant workers last week had mixed reactions to the issue.

"As long as you have a separation between smokers and nonsmokers, it works," said Mihae Mukaida, a waitress at Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant.

Jay Niebuhr, a bartender at Murphy's, said that anybody who gets into the restaurant business "knows what he's getting into." Niebuhr said he's not in favor of a total ban on smoking, although he notes that the secondhand cigarette smoke does affect him personally. "Some nights, being a nonsmoker, I definitely feel it," he said.

Still, Niebuhr said rather than a total ban, he would like to see limits, ventilation, and more effective ways to separate and "please everyone."

Jake Greenslitt, a waiter at Murphy's who admitted slipping a cigarette "once in a while," said he doesn't notice the smoke too much.

"Maybe that's because I'm used to it," he said, adding that his girlfriend complains that he smells of smoke after work. "You're probably taking in more smoke than you think."

Some predict that any effect of a smoking ban on business could be minimal.

"(The ban) in California didn't do anything to the restaurants except make them smell better," said Scott MacGowan, a waiter at Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant.

MacGowan noted that Japanese visitors, many of whom smoke, travel to Hawai'i on nonsmoking flights.

"If they can make it eight hours, they can make it through a meal," he said. "And if it's really important to them, they can stand out on the pier and smoke."

Murphy, who employs 15 people, said a dip in business might occur in the first few months of a ban. But, he said, "you may get other people coming in that wouldn't before because it was too smoky."

He added, "It's a tough call."

A decade ago, California Pizza Kitchen became the first national chain to prohibit smoking in all of its restaurants. The company, which employs 5,000 people in 130 locations nationwide — including 223 people in three restaurants on O'ahu — considers the ban a resounding success.

"We made a decision basically overnight and have not looked back ever since," said Sarah Goldsmith, senior vice president for marketing at the company's corporate offices in Los Angeles. She said the chain saw no drop in revenues after the ban took effect.

Another establishment that has prospered from a ban on smoking is Kacho, a Japanese restaurant in the Waikiki Parc Hotel whose clientele is 95 percent Japanese.

Two years ago, the hotel noticed many more Japanese visitors requesting the nonsmoking section.

"So we set up a bench outside, and said no smoking in Kacho," said David Cooper, executive assistant manager in charge of food and beverage at the Waikiki Parc. Business remained strong.

"There was no fuss," said Cooper. "The Japanese who wanted to smoke went outside. They completely understood. The cigarette smoke was interfering with the taste of the food and now the food tastes better. They were happy with it."