SALEM, Ore. – An anti-smoking coalition will press lawmakers to extend the state’s workplace tobacco ban to the smokers’ last indoor business refuge – bars and taverns.
“Public opinion is changing,” said Laura Culberson, executive director of the Tobacco-Free Coalition of Oregon. “I certainly believe there are more people in the general public now who support these laws.”
The coalition includes the major national heart, lung and cancer groups along with health-related business and nonprofit organizations.
But the Oregon Restaurant Association is siding with the smokers, saying they should have some place to eat, drink and light up, said Oregon Restaurant Association chief lobbyist Bill Perry.
The organization represents more than 3,000 establishments and is among the most influential lobby groups at the Capitol.
The association got its way in 2001, when the Legislature passed a measure that outlawed smoking in most businesses but exempted bars, taverns, bowling alleys and bingo halls.
The measure allowed existing local bar smoking bans in Corvallis, Eugene and Philomath to stand but prohibited any other local governments from passing similar ordinances.
“There are plenty of options for anybody who wants to smoke or not,” said Bill Perry, the restaurant association’s main lobbyist.
“I think our system is a model,” he said. “People who don’t want to smoke in everyday life can easily avoid it. You practically have to search out a place to smoke.”
He noted that bar owners are free to make their premises smoke-free, and some have.
Culberson said, though, that the coalition’s intention is not protecting smokers’ privileges but helping the 33,000 employees – about 5 percent of Oregon workers – who she said are exposed to secondhand smoke on the job.
“The exemptions carved out when the law passed left vulnerable the people who are more at risk than the rest of us,” Culberson said. “We need to even out the playing field.”
It’s pretty level now in the view of Salem restaurateur Mike Lewelling, a past restaurant association president.
“There’s always the option to go to a restaurant that’s totally nonsmoking,” Lewelling, owner of a steak and seafood house, said Friday.
Lewelling doesn’t smoke and said he spends a substantial amount of money on air purifiers to reduce secondhand smoke. He said more than 80 percent of his employees smoke.
“Smoking is limited to an area where minors can’t get to, and there are many adults who still like to smoke,” he said.
Culberson, pointing to statewide bar smoking prohibitions in California and New York and a national ban in Ireland’s pubs, thinks society’s trends favor the coalition.
“The restaurant association here is starting to slip a little bit behind the times,” she said.
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