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Legislator cooks up another bill to snuff public smoking

When Arby's Inc. banned smoking in its company-owned restaurants last month and said it would pressure its franchises to do the same, the Tobacco Institute clucked that the ban's only impact would be to increase business at other fast-food chains.

Then last week McDonald's banned smoking in its company-owned restaurants. Many of its franchise operations are expected to follow suit. And what did the tobacco industry say this time? That customers would just go to other fast-food restaurants.

This sounds like a healthy trend for everyone.

People who don't smoke won't have to breathe contaminated air when they visit a fast-food restaurant.

And people who smoke are going to eat a lot less high-calorie, high-fat fast food.

It looks as though 1994, more than any other, may be the Year of the Non-smoker. The number of places to smoke began dropping after the Environmental Protection Agency reported in 1992 that second-hand cigarette smoke can be deadly. The trend accelerated after the EPA last year blamed cigarette smoke for hundreds of thousands of cases of bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma attacks in children. Last week I heard a report that non-smoking pregnant women exposed to passive cigarette smoke carried fetuses with higher-than-normal nicotine levels in their hair.

As more and more is learned about the effects of smoke on our bodies, researchers predict that smoking eventually will become unlawful in all public places. If you are a non-smoker like me, you probably can hardly wait.

Businesses such as restaurants and nightclubs may not know it or acknowledge it, but they are losing business. I've left restaurants when smokers near my table puffed clouds of smoke into the air. A few weeks ago I opened the door of a new night spot in Largo and a cloud of tobacco smoke rolled out. I walked on in, peered through the haze for about five seconds, and then left with my clothes reeking. I won't go back. That kind of setting is neither healthy nor fun.

But the trend toward eliminating smoking in public places hasn't reached the Florida Legislature. And Rep. Suzanne Jacobs, D-Delray Beach, could just scream.

She's the legislator who early this month introduced House Bill 185 to ban smoking in Florida restaurants. Har, har, har.

That's funny because not only did the tobacco industry go to work against the bill but so did the Florida Restaurant Association, one of the strongest lobbies in Tallahassee. Jacobs could only stand and watch as legislators gleefully disassembled her bill before it ever got to the House floor.

Ironically, it was the House Health Services Subcommittee that performed the surgery. In January the subcommittee defeated the bill. Jacobs fought back. She allowed the bill to be amended so that restaurants with more than 50 seats would have to set aside 75 percent of their space for non-smokers.

But what the subcommittee finally approved would allow restaurants to allot up to 65 percent of their space for smokers _ just what current law says. Restaurant industry representatives said setting aside any more space for non-smokers would create too much "inflexibility" for restaurant owners.

But Jacobs hasn't given up. She has prepared several amendments. One would restore the bill to its original form and eliminate smoking outright in restaurants. She laughs at her own audacity for even trying that one, but just couldn't resist.

With another amendment, she is playing it smart. Because restaurant owners say it would be too difficult for them to increase the amount of space allotted for non-smokers, Jacobs is proposing that they just flip-flop the percentages. Where restaurants now allocate 65 percent for smokers and 35 percent for non-smokers, they would have to provide 65 percent for non-smokers and 35 percent for smokers. No moving of tables. No putting walls up or taking them down. No major modifications of air handling systems. Just a simple flip-flop.

Jacobs isn't naive enough to believe that the lobbyists and the legislators they support won't fight even that amendment, "but they'll be fighting it without logic," she said.

Jacobs expects the House Health Care Committee to hear the bill this week.

If you are tired of waiting in line for a table in restaurant non-smoking sections, or if you've had it with choking down a meal along with a hearty serving of smoke, you should contact your legislators right away about H.B. 185.

Perhaps they have spent too much time in smoke-filled rooms. They don't seem bothered by restaurant smoking. Or perhaps they just have become addicted to the campaign contributions they get from the restaurant and tobacco industries.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.