Toned-down smoking ban approved by council

Following months of debate and discussion over a smoking ban at restaurants to protect workers and patrons, the County Council has approved a bill allowing smoking in combination bar and restaurants and “open air” areas removed from main dining areas of restaurants.

The unanimous vote by the council, taken at a meeting at the historic County Building Thursday, also calls for a council review of the bill one year after it takes effect.

The bill also prohibits smoking in enclosed restaurants as well.

Anti-smoking advocates, including the state Department of Health, Coalition for Tobacco Free Hawaii, Kaua’i groups and residents, sought a total ban.

The groups have contended there is overwhelming evidence tobacco smoke causes cancer, and that continual exposure to secondhand smoke is a health hazard.

Anti-smoking advocates said they will lobby Mayor Maryanne Kusaka to veto the bill, an approach council chair Ron Kouchi cautioned against.

“Should you choose to go and lobby the mayor to veto this bill, think about the results of your action,” Kouchi said. “And do you really care about the individual’s health if you would want this first step repealed?”

The bill is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, as long as Kusaka approves the bill.

One of the exemptions allows smoking in outdoor areas – patio areas by swimming pools, for instance – located away from main dining areas.

Approval of that exemption, proposed by councilmen Kaipo Asing and Daryl Kaneshiro, means that there will be a space of ten feet between tables in “outdoor” and “indoor” eating areas of a restaurant.

Because the initial amendment language on the exact distance was vague, councilman Jimmy Tokioka, who introduced the initial bill, raised concerns about the delineation of the “outside area.”

Another approved exemption calls owners of combination bar and restaurants to file hours of operations with the Kaua’i Liquor Commission upon renewal of liquor licenses.

The exemption allows smoking at such businesses during times when only the bar is open and when signs are posted.

Councilman Bryan Baptiste said owners should specifically spell out when their businesses will operate as a bar and as a restaurant on any given day.

Baptiste said this requirement would prevent a situation where businesses flip flop between operations throughout the day.

“There needs to be some level of commitment of when the clear break is,” Baptiste said.

Not having this requirement could mean restaurants without the bar and restaurant characteristic could lose their competitive edge, Baptiste said.

Kaneshiro, who along with Asing visited numerous restaurants on the island before taking action on the bill, said he supports the bar and restaurant exemption because it would allow such businesses to “operate, to make a living, to survive.”

The other amendment would allow the council to review the bill one year after adoption.

Like council members Randal Valenciano and Gary Hooser, who said they felt too many exemptions weakened the bill, Kouchi said he didn’t “win on amendments tonight” and was disappointed.

He supported only the exemption allowing smoking at combination restaurant and bars, but could not prevail against a majority vote calling for inclusion of the open air exemption in the bill. Yet, he said, “I am still very proud of what was accomplished as a first step.”

Like all other council members, Kouchi said a priority was the protection of the restaurant employees and patrons from secondhand smoke. But Kaua’i resident Richard Stauber said that didn’t happen, based on the exemptions, and that the council voted “to protect something else.”

Valenciano said O’ahu and Maui currently have similar laws in effect, but the Kaua’i version, with the approved exceptions, is the weakest.

The Maui law prohibits smoking in restaurants, and the O’ahu law allows outdoor eating as along as the those areas are separated from indoor dining areas by distance of ten feet or a solid wall, Valenciano said.

Hooser contended the Kaua’i version should have had as few exemptions as possible to be consistent with the O’ahu and Maui laws.

He said he was happy with the sole exemption approved previously by the council’s finance/intergovernmental relations committee. That one called for the allowing smoking in combination bar and restaurant businesses.

The additional proposal for the open air exception “to me, put sit a little too far,” Hooser said.

“The combination of these two exemptions, to me, puts us at the bottom of the list in terms of the various ordinances,” Hooser said.

Hooser also contended that other restaurants that “don’t qualify (for the exemption), I believe, are at a disadvantage.”

Hooser said the Kaua’i Visitors Bureau and other business groups on Kaua’i said they would support a bill that was not stronger than the O’ahu and Maui laws.

At the same time, the anti-smoking advocates and organizations said they didn’t want a bill that would be significantly weaker than the laws on the other islands, Hooser said.

Speaking for Dr. Bruce Anderson, who heads the state Department of Health, Barbara Yamashita said the DOH would have preferred a bill without any exemptions to reduce “public health risks.”

“Research is very clear and experience across the communities across the country show that simple separation of smokers and non-smokers in the same air space only reduce but does not eliminate harmful exposure,” said Yamashita, apparently reading a written statement by Anderson.

The bill with the exemptions drew support from Caroline Fredericksen, co-owner of Joe’s on the Green in Po’ipu, a combination bar and restaurant establishment with “open-air” dining.

“It is not what we wanted, but we could work with it,” said Fredericksen before the council voted to approved the additional exemptions allowing eating in outdoor settings.

Kouchi said the council has shown its willingness to listen to both sides and to analyze data before making a decision.

Tokioka, a restaurant owner, was applauded by many residents, DOH and anti-smoking groups for introducing a bill.

He said he had two commitments when he started work on the bill. One was a total ban at restaurants, but he said he could not guarantee that because “you are dealing with seven council people.”

The other commitment was that “we would try to be as fair as we possibly could,” Tokioka said.

Since November, when work on the bill started, the council has considered numerous amendments, he has spoken with many folks to get their comments and he was pleased with the compromise bill, Tokioka said.

Asing said he is personally opposed to smoking and that he avoids restaurants where smoking is allowed. But as a public servant, Asing said he is “here to represent and protect the views of the entire community.”

In other action, the council approved a bill introduced by Baptiste that would provide a $20 a month credit on sewer bills for residents hooked up to the municipal sewage treatment system. The bill was introduced to mitigate the impact of incremental fee increases.

As a way to help elderly homeowners, Kouchi noted the council has increased property tax exemptions for that segment of Kaua’i’s population.

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