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Allegheny County nears action on smoking ban

| Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006

What's next

Allegheny County Councilman Mike Finnerty will propose that a vote be taken Tuesday to conduct a public hearing on the proposed smoking ban. If the vote passes, the hearing would be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 5 in the Gold Room of the Allegheny County Courthouse.

The Council's Health and Human Services Committee is to meet at least once more before putting the ordinance up for a final vote at the end of September. Allegheny County Council will vote within the next two weeks on a smoking ban that would prohibit anyone from lighting up in a bar or restaurant, causing many area bar owners and patrons some anxiety.

The countywide smoking ban would affect all workplaces -- including bars, restaurants and the yet-to-be-built slots parlor.

County Council President Rich Fitzgerald said a vote could come as early as the end of September.

Approval appears likely since nine of council's 15 members are cosponsors -- one shy of the 10 votes needed for a veto-proof majority. County Chief Executive Dan Onorato opposes the ordinance, which could take effect within 30 days of passage.

Council members are still trying to decide how to penalize violators. Individuals would face a $25 fine for the first offense, but Fitzgerald said it could be raised to $50. Language might be added to penalize restaurants $100 or $200 for a first offense and strip chronic offenders' operating licenses.

Enforcement likely will fall to the Allegheny County Health Department, according to Dr. Bruce Dixon, the department's director.

"We're stretched pretty thin, so enforcement would come with great difficulty," Dixon said. "If it does fall on the health department, the one thing that's clear is that a lot of it will be self-regulating."

Other cities with smoking bans generally haven't had enforcement problems because the laws are usually enough to encourage compliance, Dixon said. The health department probably would not hire extra staff to enforce the ban, he said.

"We certainly can't employ a separate group of people as the smoking police," he said.

The county is considering adopting the ban against the advice of several powerful county officials, including Onorato and Solicitor Mike Wojcik.

Onorato, according to spokesman Kevin Evanto, supports a statewide ban because he feels local legislation might put Allegheny County at a competitive disadvantage.

Wojcik said the state Clean Indoor Air Act prohibits the county from taking such action and keeps the power to regulate smoking solely with the state. Wojcik's opinion puts him at odds with Council Solicitor Jack Cambest, who said he believes the law has since changed.

Kevin Joyce, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, agrees with Wojcik.

The trade organization changed its long-held position opposing smoking bans in June, following the release of a U.S. surgeon general's report that linked second-hand smoke to increased health risks.

"We believe our historic shift in position will set the table for getting the statewide ban done in the fall," Joyce said. "The county has an unrealistic timetable. Last month, they passed a resolution supporting a statewide ban, but they haven't given the Legislature time to react."

The debate is expected to continue when the Legislature reconvenes in September.

Local Allegheny County reaction

At the Do Drop Inn in Harrison, bartender Bill Singer said that a complete ban on smoking would be a stretch for county officials.

"This is not a positive move," Singer said. "We have a separate non-smoking area, and I think that's good enough."

Jeanne Clark is a server at the Do Drop Inn. She said that while smokers today should show respect for others who may be eating, a smoking ban just won't work.

"If they want to smoke, they are going to smoke," Clark said. "Who is going to tell them what to do when they curse you out• It's not going to work."

At the Creighton Hotel in East Deer, manager Terry Osinski said that if a ban is placed on every bar, smoking customers won't have a choice as to where to go -- other than home.

Creighton Hotel customer John Cieslinski is a nonsmoker who thinks the ban is a good idea for restaurants.

However, he isn't so sure about a nonsmoking bar scene.

"I travel to Florida and New York and people are outside smoking," Cieslinski said. Both have smoking bans. "I think for bars it's going to be hard because people go there to relax and enjoy an adult beverage and their vice (smoking)."

Bartender Robbie Merrill at the Frosted Mug in Springdale feels that her customers will be very unhappy if the ban passes.

"I've been in the bar business for 22 years and it's not a good idea," Merrill said. "Each individual owner should dictate what goes on in their restaurants."

Frosted Mug customer Bill Baker, however, believes that the ban will be a healthy move for the county.

"Bartenders suck up a lot of smoke," Baker said. "Healthier people would be a good thing."

At Tully's, in Tarentum, customer Jarrod Johns said that a smoking ban "is not going to fly."

"You work all day to come have a drink and a cigarette, and they're going to take that away?" Johns said.

Business for Westmoreland

Some local bar owners in Westmoreland County expect a bump in business when the upcoming smoking ban goes into effect in Allegheny County.

Bill Osman, owner of the Freedom Inn in New Kensington, said that although his bar is a small business, he expects to benefit.

"I can see people from Tarentum and Natrona Heights coming over to our bar now," Osman said. "We'll definitely pick up some business from across the river."

Freedom Inn manager Mary Ann Napoli agrees.

"A lot of people come into a bar to relax and smoke," Napoli said. "It's definitely going to affect businesses in Allegheny County."

Osman feared that a smoking ban in Allegheny County could ultimately cause bans in other counties.

"I hope the ban never hits Westmoreland County," Osman said. "I feel bad for Allegheny County business owners."

Augie Distilo, owner of the Burrell Inn in Lower Burrell, also expects to bring in more smokers once the ban takes effect.

"When it (the ban) hits, it'll be a big change (for Allegheny County)," Distilo said. "We'll probably get more business."

Maria Adda, a bartender at Mogie's Restaurant and Bar in Lower Burrell, said she didn't think the smoking ban would bring in more customers.

"It probably won't have a lot of effect here," Adda said.

Unlike other bar owners and employees, Adda didn't believe that the smoking ban would affect bars in Allegheny County.

"If people have a bar they like, they're not going to stop going just because they can't smoke," Adda said. "They'll just go outside."

Valley News Dispatch correspondents Melissa VanDervort and Stephanie A. Rex contributed to this report.

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