Civil rights issue raised in county council debate over smoking ban

Before the Kaua’i County Council passes a law banning smoking in restaurants, it should consider civil rights implications, councilmembers were told at a meeting yesterday.

Some audience members at a meeting of the council committees at the historic County Building said they didn’t like being around smokers, but felt such a law would amount to an erosion of civil rights.

Clifford Chang, representing the Coalition for Tobacco-Free Hawaii in calling for a bill without exemptions, said he wasn’t at the meeting to “squash” civl rights.

“In fact, there is no ciivl rights to smoke. There is even no right to purchase cigarettes,” Chang added. “The U.S. courts have affirmed that.”

The testimony came as the council’s finance/intergovernmental relations committee was poised to consider amendments to the bill.

During recent meetings, council members talked about the possibility of approving a bill that would ban smoking in all restaurants, regardless of size.

Councilman James Tokioka, who introduced the bill and has been applauded by residents for voicing a need to protect workers from secondhand smoke, indicated he would propose an amendment allowing smoking in small, family-owned restaurants that employed only family members.

The exemption, if approved by the full council, would affect only a handful of such restaurants.

Advocates of the bill are pitching for one without any exemptions, saying people will develop serious health problems, including lung cancer, by being continuously exposed to secondhand smoke.

During testimony yesterday, a bartender and restaurant worker said government didn’t have the right to impose such a law on restaurants and that only restaurant owners should have the right to decide whether to allow smoking or prohibit smoking in their businesses.

Others said that “less government is better government,” a sentiment Tokioka agreed with. But Tokioka noted the bill was intended to provide for a healthy working environment.

Another audience member, who said he smokes cigars, said the bill has merit and that his civil rights would be violated if smoke wafted over him as he ate in an open-air restaurant.

Joe Batteiger, owner of Joe’s on the Green in Po’ipu, said that the bill’s intent to provide protection against secondhand smoke was too broad, and that exemptions should be made for open-air restaurants.

A study may have to be done on Kaua’i to “determine to what extent secondhand smoke in open-air restaurants violates or infringes upon the employees or guests,” he said.

In defense of the bill, Mary Williamson, executive director of the American Cancer Society said proof that secondhand smoke is dangerous is undeniable.

In past council meetings, Williamson said she has presented “cancer incidents, death rates and stories about old smokers and non-smokers diagnosed with various cancers.”

Yet one resident, a non-smoker, said that a study suggests that people don’t succumb to the effects of secondhand smoke, but rather are affected by pollution in general.

Experts have provided information that show that restaurants don’t suffer financially in areas where anti-smoking laws are in place and that secondhand smoke “doesn’t fully dissipate outdoor areas,” Williamson said.

Williamson said interest in smoking is plummeting in America, noting that in 1946, 45 percent of Americans smoke, that 50 years later, the figure has dropped to 25 percent, and that only 17 percent of Kaua’i’s residents smoke today.

Chang noted a USA Today survey showed 70 percent of the people polled said they didn’t go to bars and night clubs because of smoking and that 48 percent said they didn’t go to restaurants because of smoking.

California data, Chang also said, shows that there have been increased revenues when “restaurants and bars went smoke free.”

Joe Rosa said the best solution for Kaua’i is a compromise bill that would ban smoking only during certain hours of the day.

But Beth Kuch, communications coordinator for the Coalition for Tobacco-Free Hawaii, said designated non-smoking areas should be “smoke-free at all times” to protect the health of employees and restaurant patrons.

She also said she favors a bill that has clear definitions and removes or minimizes exemptions.

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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