Updated at 9:34 a.m., Sunday, February 18, 2007
Smoking ban openly defied by some bars
By MARK NIESSE
So far, they're getting away with it, with some citing the Boston Tea Party and other rebellions. A recent protest smoke-in brought police to a downtown bar.
"Smokers don't have anywhere else to go," said Lance Gomes, owner of Pigskins Sports Bar, where drinkers inhale tobacco fumes while shooting pool and throwing darts. "If the police come around, they come around. ... We are trying to fight this law. Let's see what happens."
Hawai'i, whose anti-smoking law took effect in November, is one of 16 states that have banned smoking in all public places. The law covers open malls and Hawai'i's many popular, year-round outdoor dining areas, and it doesn't allow bars or offices to set aside rooms for smokers.
Bar owners complain that the law, which was passed to decrease the danger of secondhand smoke, is ruining their business and keeping away smoking tourists, especially those from Japan.
Gomes said he'd lost nearly half his customers when the air cleared, although his business has rebounded since he decided to disobey the ban.
Honolulu police have not issued any citations against defiant smokers, said spokeswoman Michelle Yu. The law requires a member of the public to make a report before an officer will investigate, and then it's up to the offer how to handle the violation.
"What we're hoping for is the public's cooperation," Yu said.
At least six bars in Hawai'i are actively ignoring the law, which prohibits people from smoking within 20 feet of restaurants, bars and the windows or doors of any workplace. Penalties start at $100 and increase up to $500 after the third offense. Bars could eventually lose their liquor licenses, and customers could face $50 fines.
During a recent protest by angry bar owners who rallied at O'Toole's Irish Pub in the Chinatown district, several dozen people crowded the pub to spark cigars and cigarettes. Police were called to the scene, and everyone put out their smokes.
"We're being rebellious. Look at the Boston Tea Party. Look at Prohibition. They rebelled and they won," said Fred Remington, vice president of the company that runs O'Toole's. "By passing this law, they took away all American citizens' freedom of choice."
To help combat the no-smoking law, Remington helped rally the 93-member Hawaii Bar Owners Association, which filed a lawsuit in January against the state to try to overturn the law. The legal action claims the government has violated the bars' private property rights.
Similar lawsuits have been brought in other states with anti-smoking laws, but not one has succeeded, said Deborah Zysman, director of the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawaii.
"We're pretty confident that our law will stand," she said. "We have always been pretty certain that it's a relatively small number of establishments that are acting as scofflaws. The overwhelming majority of restaurants and businesses are following the rules."
Smokers themselves appear divided on the issue some don't mind having to step outside for a cigarette, while others reject what they feel is an unjust infraction of their basic rights.
"I like being in a place where I'm not drenched by smoke," said Stan Brandon, who bummed a Kool menthol cigarette from his friend while playing pool at Pigskins. "But it kind of goes against the concept of freedom."
When Hawai'i's law was passed, supporters said it was needed to protect the health of employees in bars and restaurants who can't avoid inhaling secondhand smoke in the course of their jobs.
Brenda Kennedy-Rogers, a bartender at Cha Cha Cha in Waikiki, argued that people expect to be able to smoke when they visit a pub.
"If I'm drinking, I want to be smoking," she said as she took a drag off a Capri just outside the 20-foot zone at Aloha Tower Marketplace. "They keep taking more and more of our rights away."
Food-service businesses like Paradise Burritos also claim losses because of the smoking ban.
The company's owner, Dan Wright, said he lost 70 percent of his daily delivery business mostly to strip clubs because patrons don't sit around drinking, smoking and eating as much as they used to.
"Smokers tip better, stay longer and drink more. If they can't smoke, they're going to hit and run," said Wright, who smokes Benson & Hedges cigarettes. "I'm having to rebuild my entire business."
On top of the bar owners' protest and the lawsuit, opponents of the smoking law are trying to get an exemption for bars through the state Legislature. Bars have collected nearly 6,000 signatures on a petition.
Lawmakers rejected the smoking exemption this week, but Remington said he hopes it's brought up again in a different committee.
"When you enter an establishment, there should be a very big sign that clearly denotes there are designated smoking areas, and it might be dangerous to your health," said Rep. Cindy Evans, D-Makalawena-Waimea, who introduced the bill. "Get your message out, but give people a choice."