They'd rather fight than quit: Some smokers defy new ban

KENNETH P. VOGEL; The News Tribune


Pierce County, WA - The historic Pierce County indoor smoking ban took effect Friday, but you wouldn't have known it by surveying the lunch crowd at Barb's Westgate Inn.

A haze of cigarette smoke hung over the 20 or so patrons in the bar as Roger Carman, a 70-year old regular who lives near the establishment in Tacoma's West End, took a drag off his Camel.

"Give me a ticket. I could care less," said Carman, a retired pipe fitter and 50-year smoker, prompting nods of agreement from most within earshot.

For a few days at least, Carman and other patrons or owners of the handful of Pierce County bars and restaurants that have said they'll defy the ban don't need to worry about being sanctioned.

That's because the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, which is charged with enforcing the ban, plans to wait until Monday, when its inspectors return from vacations, before cracking down on smoking.

Another regular at Barb's is suing to overturn the ban. And a group of more than 40 bar, restaurant and minicasino owners is set to meet Monday evening at Barb's to decide whether to file a separate lawsuit. Opponents say the ban violates a state law that allows bars, restaurants and other businesses to establish smoking areas.

In the meantime, the owners of at least seven other bars told The News Tribune that they plan to allow their patrons to continue to smoking.

Still, supporters proclaimed Friday a victory for the local health department and for public health and anti-tobacco advocates across the state and country.

But the ultimate winners, said Rick Porso, public health director for the department, are Pierce County's 19,000 restaurant and bar workers.

Most scientists agree that secondhand tobacco smoke poses a health risk, though a small but vocal group disagrees.

Annie Tegen of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights said the implications of the Pierce County ban, which is the first of its kind in the state, are also "incredibly significant." Tegen, whose group has tracked smoke-free ordinances in more than 1,600 localities and six states around the country, predicted the ban will spur efforts to pass smoke-free laws in municipalities around the state.

King County has already said it will follow suit if the Pierce County ban holds, and a coalition is laying the groundwork for a concerted push this year in the Legislature for a statewide ban.

Locally, the ban means that smokers could get $100 fines if they're caught lighting up in bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, minicasinos, hotels and most other nontribal businesses. The penalties are more dire for the owners of those businesses. After a warning, they can get a $100 fine, then the health department can suspend or revoke licenses necessary to stay in business.

"We'll just go until somebody comes and tells us we need to put these (ashtrays) away," said Barb's owner Jarry Zaspel, who has become something of a leader among bar and restaurant owners opposed to the ban. "I'll take that as a warning, but I don't think we'll take a citation.

"I'm not trying to argue for smoking, but they should be more careful with our rights," he added.

Nearly 730 of the county's 1,100 establishments licensed to serve food and alcohol on the premises had already voluntarily gone smoke-free before the Tacoma Pierce County Board of Health passed the ban last month.

And some bars and restaurants that had allowed smoking complied with the ban on Friday.

"We thought long and hard about it and we have decided to respect the ban, even if we don't agree with it," said Troy Christian, managing partner at El Gaucho.

The pricey downtown Tacoma steakhouse contains what health department officials said was the county's only cigar lounge. Christian said it will not allow cigar smoking until at least Monday's meeting at Barb's.

Christian said El Gaucho plans to contribute to a legal defense fund that Harry Johnson, owner of Pegasus restaurant on Puyallup Avenue in Tacoma, said is already at $25,000.

The owners, who were disappointed when the Washington Restaurant Association backed away from a November pledge to sue to block the ban, will be joined by a new ally Monday.

Linda Matson, director of the Entertainment Industry Coalition, a statewide group of restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, nontribal minicasinos and other businesses, said her group will throw its weight behind the bar and restaurant owners.

"It's a matter of looking for the willing warrior," Matson said Friday, adding that the restaurant association has chosen to focus its energies on blocking a comprehensive statewide smoking ban.

Matson said state or local bans will give an unfair advantage to the state's Indian casinos since they wouldn't be subject to the bans.

Maureen Bendixen, who smoked a cigarette after she and her husband had a late breakfast at Barb's, said the ban reminded her of "Big Brother-type stuff." But she said they'd be back even if Barb's went smoke-free.

"They have very good food," she said.

Kenneth P. Vogel: 360-754-6093

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