September 16, 2008 |

Businesses cry foul over inequities in new state no smoking law

South Pittsburgh bar and restaurant owners are struck by what they see as the inequities in the Clean Indoor Air Act that went into effect on September 11 that eliminates smoking in some places and permits smoking in others.

George Panteles, owner of Excuses Bar and Grill on East Carson Street, is afraid his customers will move a couple of doors down because his neighbor's bar would be eligible for an exemption to allow smoking. The Clean Indoor Air Act permits bars to apply for exemptions to the no smoking rule if they do not admit minors under 18 years of age and have total annual food sales no greater than 20 percent of their annual gross sales.

"I [don't object] to the smoking ban, as long as it's fair," Mr. Panteles says. If the ban applied to everyone, including private clubs and the casinos he wouldn't have a big problem with it.

Without a level playing field, Mr. Panteles says he is considering cutting down on the hours his kitchen is open to get under the 20 percent limit for food sales to allow his customers to smoke.

"They're letting them smoke in the casinos because the state is making money from them," he adds.

Along with Mr. Panteles, Don Gillenburger, owner of the Green Front Inn on South Side, is thinking about limiting the hours he keeps his kitchen open. He feels many of his bar customers will go elsewhere now that they aren't allowed to light up.

Mr. Gillenburger doesn't object to having a no smoking law, he's more concerned that the law has loopholes that permit some businesses to continue allowing their patrons to smoke when his customers can't.

"It should be everyone or no one," he says.

State Representatives Chelsa Wagner and Dan Frankel also see inequities in the law and each has proposed amending the law to allow local municipalities to strengthen the law. Currently, Philadelphia which enacted a smoking ban two years ago, is the only local municipality in Pennsylvania to have a stronger smoking ban than the state.

Rep. Wagner's legislation would amend the Clean Indoor Air Act to give Allegheny County a 90 day window of opportunity to establish a stronger smoking ban than the current act. After that time, the county would only be able to change the local ban to make it equivalent with the statewide ban.

Rep. Frankel's legislation would remove language in the act in order to allow local governments other than Philadelphia to enact and enforce local stronger smoking ordinances.

"We want to make sure we are treating everyone fairly," Rep. Wagner said. As it stands, the current law "pits businesses against businesses and isn't fair to the employees" she explained.

Representatives Wagner and Frankel originally supported a stronger, more comprehensive smoking ban that would have allowed counties and local governments to enact stricter bans. However, after that version of the bill passed the House by a 2-to-1 margin, it was ultimately weakened.

The bill eventually signed into law restricts all counties and local governments, except Philadelphia, from enacting stricter smoking bans. Both lawmakers are proposing legislation to remove the restrictions on stronger local bans.

"If Allegheny County believes casinos should be smoke free, if [Allegheny County] wants bars to be smoke free, then they should be," Rep. Wagner said.

"If we can't get the whole pie, at least give us Allegheny County," Rep. Frankel said of Ms. Wagner's amendment.

"In Philadelphia you have two casinos that don't allow smoking," she added. "We deserve the same thing in Allegheny County."

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