Business owners declare war on smoking ban

KENNETH P. VOGEL; The News Tribune


Pierce County, WA - As many as 40 bar and restaurant owners plan to willfully disobey the Pierce County smoking ban set to go into effect Friday and are raising money to sue to overturn it.

The owners have met twice in the last eight days at Barb's Westgate Inn in Tacoma's West End to discuss ways to fight the ban. It would prohibit smoking in bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, minicasinos, hotels and most other nontribal businesses in Pierce County.

They had been relying on the Washington Restaurant Association to lead the charge. But that group has backed away from the threat of legal action it made early this month after the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health passed the ban, which would be the first of its kind in the state.

"We're not going to wait for the restaurant association," said Harry Johnson, owner of Pegasus Restaurant on Puyallup Avenue in Tacoma. He has a jar on his bar soliciting contributions from patrons, which he plans to add to the $25,000 he says owners have already pledged to overturn the ban.

In the meantime, many plan to let their customers keep right on puffing Friday, even though that could bring fines on smokers and businesses. Violators also could lose various licenses needed to stay open for business.

"We're not going to lay down for this," said Steve Fabre, who owns Cassidy's Pub in Midland and Point Defiance Café and Casino in Ruston. He said that when roughly 40 bar and restaurant owners met last week "everyone at that meeting, to a man or woman, said they are still going to allow smoking."

In addition to Fabre and Johnson, the owners of the Silver Dollar Tavern Pub in Spanaway and Barb's Westgate Inn, 2121 Tavern and All Seasons Tavern in Tacoma confirmed this week they will ignore the ban.

Nearly 730 businesses in Pierce County licensed to serve food or alcohol on the premises are already voluntarily smoke-free. All of the owners of smoking establishments questioned for this story said they allow smoking because a majority of their customers and employees smoke.

"It's a free market," said Johnson. "And if 85 percent of my customers didn't smoke, I wouldn't allow smoking."

The owners questioned for this story all said they feared that if they were forced to ban smoking, they would lose customers to businesses not covered by the ban, like the casinos run by the Puyallup tribe or businesses in other counties.

"I've got Indian establishments right here next to me that will put me out of business if I have to go nonsmoking," said Johnson.

But supporters of smoking bans dispute that prediction. There hasn't been a drop in business in most places that have gone smoke-free, said Annie Tegen, an official with Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, which has tracked smoke-free ordinances in more than 1,600 localities and six states around the country.

But in most of those jurisdictions, Tegen said there hasn't been "a group effort to disobey the law" like the one Pierce County owners are planning.

"We really hope that that's not what people's intentions are," said Rick Porso, public health manager for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. "We hope that that's just people talking right now."

Porso added, however, that "if people wish to defy it and break the law, we'll go through the process." For restaurant owners or operators, that would mean a warning on the first citation, followed by fines of $100 for each additional. The department also could suspend or revoke various department-issued business licenses.

The department's goal, Porso said, is to reach out to businesses - through brochures and inspectors' visits - to educate them on how to comply with the ban. They haven't done a good job of that yet, said Tom Cicchinelli, co-owner of the All Seasons Tavern.

"They haven't given us enough time. It was like wham bam," Cicchinelli said. He and the other owners asserted that the ban violates a state law that allows businesses to establish smoking sections, a position backed by lawyers in the state Attorney General's Office.

Though Cicchinelli said he believes "it's only a matter of time" before the state Legislature approves a statewide smoking ban, he said, "I don't see how the health department can pass a law like this."

Kenneth P. Vogel: 360-754-6093


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