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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 20, 2002

O'ahu smoking ban stuns restaurant owners

By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer

Restaurant owners around O'ahu are struggling to understand a new no-smoking law that takes effect in less than two weeks and could require significant changes at hundreds of establishments.

In a briefing for restaurateurs yesterday, officials outlined the new requirements, exceptions and potential fines approved by the City Council this year requiring all restaurants to be smoke-free by July 1.

Some confusion is resulting, however, because establishments classified as restaurant/bars have an extra year to become completely non-smoking, but must in the meantime have floor-to-ceiling walls between the restaurant and bar areas, as well as a separate ventilation system.

Stand-alone bars and nightclubs, where food is considered incidental, are exempt from the law and may continue to allow smoking indefinitely. But only establishments where alcoholic beverages account for more than two-thirds of their monthly gross receipts can qualify under this exception.

But all of the complexities and various exceptions have some operators irritated and wondering what they have to do to comply.

"They should ban everything so we don't have to worry about this exemption," said Eastside Grill owner Robbie Acoba, who said he will define his establishment as a bar but plans to remove the cigarette machine and encourage smokers to sit near the window.

John Langan, general manager of Compadres Bar & Grill in Ward Centre, estimates that he can only have three outside tables devoted to smoking to comply with the nebulous 10-feet-of-space-between-the-restaurant-wall-and-outdoor-table rule.

But he was unsure yesterday. And he had questions about other details of the ban.

"Who's going to come to enforce the rules?" he asked. "Is there going to be cigarette police, the smoking Gestapo?"

Melvin Lee, chief of the building division for the City and County's Department of Planning and Permitting, said his staff will enforce the requirement that restaurants post signs reading "Welcome to Smoke-Free Dining. Smoking Prohibited by Law." The fine for not displaying the sign is $25.

All other issues will be handled by the police, who can cite restaurant owners who violate the ordinance or smokers who break the law. Anyone smoking in a restaurant could be fined $100 for the first violation.

Some restaurant owners decided to get a jump on the ordinance and, because of the impracticality and expense of remodeling to accommodate the law for just one year, go completely non-smoking early.

But yesterday Murphy's Bar & Grill owner Don Murphy said he had been under the impression that even stand-alone bars — such as his competitor, O'Toole's, across the street — also would have to become smoke-free by 2003.

"That's not fair at all," said Murphy. "It just doesn't make sense."

Few restaurant owners yesterday said they opposed the new regulations, despite their confusing nature and the the controversy surrounding them earlier this year as public health advocates concerned about the effects of secondhand smoke on patrons and staff pushed for their adoption.

And some O'ahu restaurants that decided independently to prohibit smoking said they have not seen a decrease in business.

Donato's owner and chef, Donato Loperfido, said revenues at his restaurant have increased 20 percent to 25 percent since he declared his restaurant smoke-free Jan. 1.

Loperfido said patrons don't seem to mind going to the lanai to smoke, where he has set up chairs and ashtrays. Loperfido also said employees who don't have to clean ashtrays save time and devote more attention to customers.

"We should have done it a long time ago," Loperfido said.

Paul Takushi, operations manager for all 22 Zippy's restaurants on O'ahu, also said the shift to a smoke-free environment has been positive.

"In the beginning we thought business would drop, but it's been just the opposite," he said. "Business is really good."

Still, some restaurant owners remained wary about the possible effect on business.

Red Lobster general manager Grant Drolette said he is concerned about how the predominantly Japanese clientele at this restaurant's Waikiki location will react.

"Understanding is going to be the most important part, rather than compliance," said Mark Levin, assistant professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai'i. Smoking rates in Japan have dropped steadily for the past nine years, non-smoking areas are increasing, and only 27 percent of the population smokes, said Levin, who has studied smoking policy and regulation in Japan.

Many workers and patrons yesterday seemed to have few qualms about the changes.

Marie Owens, 25, a waitress at Compadres, said she can't wait for the ban to take effect. "I hate smoking," she said. "It's really nice to not go home smelling like smoke."

Jan Diehl, a waitress at Murphy's Bar & Grill, let out a cheer yesterday. "Smoke-free, yeah!" she said. "It will be nice not to smell other people's smoke. I think people will adapt to it, like they did in California."

Even though smokers initially may balk, they eventually will adjust, said Mike Durkee, 62, a former smoker from Hilo who was sitting at Murphy's bar yesterday.

"People go outside in California to smoke," Durkee said. "People in Hawai'i can, too."

Advertiser staff writer Dan Nakaso contributed to this report.

Reach Katherine Nichols at 525-8093 or knichols@honoluluadvertiser.com.