Panel lets smoking ban stay in place
Bar owners and their backers asked for an exception in their establishments
Despite tales of empty bars and upset regulars, opponents of Hawaii's no-smoking law failed to persuade lawmakers last night to pass a bill that would have created a special liquor license allowing people to light up.
Those behind the permit proposed under House Bill 1800, which was deferred by a House Judiciary Committee, argued it would have helped bars, restaurants and clubs that have struggled since the strict smoking ban began three months ago.
Ronald Savoy Jr., a bartender at the Hideaway Club in Waikiki and father of two children, blamed the law for scaring away customers and cutting his pay by 70 percent.
"My question to you is, Are you going to pay my bills? This month was the first time since I moved into my new home that I haven't been able to pay my rent," the 36-year-old told lawmakers, saying he used to take home $200 a day but is now only making $26. "Are you going to be there when I have to pack my things and move my family out? I didn't think so."
STAR-BULLETIN / NOVEMBER 2006
Cigarettes and an ashtray is shown at O'Toole's Irish Pub on a Saturday night in November prior to the Smoke-Free Law, which took effect on Nov. 16. CLICK FOR LARGE
But for more than two hours, legislators also heard from residents who praised the clean air as well as representatives of organizations who repeatedly warned about tobacco's health risks and asked that the 3-month-old law be given more time to work.
They cited numerous studies done in states with similar controls that showed anti-smoking laws did not put bars and clubs that rely on alcohol sales out of business. Eventually, proponents claimed, the law helped smokers quit and brought businesses a new wave of customers who used to stay away from hazy bars.
"This law is one of the best public measures to ever be passed in Hawaii," said Debbie Odo, director of tobacco control with the American Lung Association in Hawaii. "Not only will this law save lives, it will save lives and will have a positive impact on our economy."
Lawmakers deferred the measure, with Judiciary Chairman Tommy Water saying that changing the law now would be premature.
Lance Gomes, owner of the Pigskin Sports Bar on Kapiolani Boulevard, said the proposal introduced by Rep. Bob Nakasone (D, Kahului-Paia) would have been a "win-win" compromise because it gave options for smokers and nonsmokers.
"You are giving people a choice of where they want to go," he said. "That's all they are asking."
Gomes, who has seen 30 percent to 50 percent fewer clients since the law took effect in November, has publicly challenged the state's ban by letting smokers puff on their cigarettes in his bar, an action he said was the only way to keep his business alive.
"The government is making me be a criminal," he said.
The state Department of Health, relying mostly on complaints from patrons, has issued noncompliant bar owners "hundreds" of warnings, said Julian Lipsher, public-health educator for the department.
Although Hawaii's law has penalties ranging from $100 to $500 for repeated offenders, the Department of Health still must get approval for administrative rules to enforce the new law, which could take time, Lipsher said.
Lipsher showed up at yesterday's hearing despite receiving a letter from Kawika Crowley, co-chairman of Hawaii Smokers Alliance, warning him to stop opposing the proposed exemption.
"We are in this for the long, long haul, and it will get ugly," wrote Crowley, who called yesterday's hearing "a huge victory" because it brought out the concerns of businesses to the attention of lawmakers.
"We didn't have a great victory yet," he said, adding he has collected some 5,000 signatures against the no-smoking law. "But they are going to have to listen to us."