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No-smoking bills head in different directions

In November, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to ban smoking in almost every public place.

Now it's up to the Florida House and Senate to implement the seemingly simple measure, and they are going in opposite directions.

The House wants to ban smoking everywhere except in private homes, some hotel rooms and standalone bars.

The Senate, however, would allow smoking in designated rooms at airports, in standalone bars, in tobacco shops, tobacco factories and wherever it is part of "scientific, political, religious, ideological or other expressive speech or activity."

Some lawmakers complained that the Senate's exemptions are "big enough to drive a cigarette truck through."

The Senate also would require restaurants to post no-smoking signs on every wall and table and include the ban in advertising. The restaurant smoking ban would extend to outdoor patios and decks.

The Senate's bill (SB 742) made its first appearance at the Senate Regulated Industries Committee Wednesday and brought howls of outrage from restaurant owners and clean-air advocates alike.

"It violates the spirit and intent of the constitutional amendment approved by voters," said Curt Kiser, a former senator lobbying for the American Cancer Society.

"It would be devastating to the restaurant industry," said Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant Association. "You could name it, "An Act to Stick It to the Restaurant Industry.' It's unfair."

Dover urged the committee to allow smoking in outdoor restaurant areas, noting that the amendment was designed to protect workers in enclosed spaces.

The advertising and sign requirements, meanwhile, could cost Florida restaurants as much as $75-million a year, she said.

Dover and several restaurant owners also objected to a provision that would allow smoking in bars that derive as much as 30 percent of their income from food. The constitutional amendment referred to standalone bars where food is incidental. Part of the debate involves defining incidental.

Current law requires a bar to get a restaurant license if it serves more than popcorn and prepackaged snacks.

The House version sidesteps that debate and simply bans smoking in bars as well as restaurants.

Only Richard Giese, former commander of the Florida Disabled American Veterans, was happy because organizations such as his could allow smoking at events where only members are in attendance.

Nearly every member of the committee opposed some element of the bill, but agreed to vote for it to keep the issue moving. Its sponsor, Republican Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla of Miami, said the House and Senate must iron out their differences before the bill can pass.

In the House, Speaker Johnnie Byrd and Rep. Manuel Prieguez, chairman of the Business Regulation Committee, denounced the Senate bill. The House version, they said, will more clearly echo the amendment voters approved.

"If the Senate votes out their bill, it would fly in the face of everyone who voted for the amendment," said Prieguez, R-Miami. "They are creating exemptions like they were going out of style. They put things in there I can't believe and took a direct shot at the restaurant association. They created exemptions that have never been discussed."

What's next?

SB 742 is scheduled to go to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Economic Opportunities and Consumer Services. A House version is being drafted.