Sunday, July 09, 2006

Say what, Pa.?

Some onlookers might wonder what they’re smoking in Pennsylvania these days. But if the state’s restaurant industry has its way, you can bet it won’t be tobacco.

The Pennsylvania Restaurant Association delivered a real jaw-dropper last week when it sent letters to state lawmakers, urging them to ban smoking in all public places, eateries included. There was no proposal before the legislature. No referendum was about to be put to voters. Indeed, there seemed to be no harebrained measure afoot that the trade was hoping to pre-empt with a more reasonable proposal. From all appearances and known circumstances, it seemed the association was taking the initiative on a no-smoking law. And the association didn’t say otherwise.

It asserted publicly that it was moved by a report from the U.S. surgeon general that found second-hand smoke to be a significant health risk to non-smokers. Yet association officials told deputy managing editor Paul Frumkin that they decided to call for the ban a day before the surgeon general’s findings were released.

We wondered aloud in our New York office about the possibility of liability lawsuits based on the surgeon general’s study, and if the PRA was trying to shield its members from litigation down the road. But that notion was put forth by us, not the association.

However, tea leaves and other indicators suggest the PRA may have a motive other than merely protecting servers and bartenders from second-hand smoke. Association chief Patrick Conway told Frumkin that the industry staked out “the high ground” because “we might be better positioned to guide the debate at the state level.” And if that’s the case, the PRA’s actions may be well-conceived.

Its about-face in calling for the prohibition, after steadfastly resisting a ban for years, came to notice almost in the same hour news reports surfaced in Louisiana about the restaurant industry suing the state over a recently-passed smoking law. Operators there are furious because a new ban exempts casinos, just as New Jersey’s law does. In both states, the trade has argued that the exemption gives casinos an unfair advantage in the battle for consumers’ disposable income.

And there’s absolutely, positively no doubt they’re right; the exemption is patently fair. The casinos argued that they’d lose money if smoking was banned on their premises, just as restaurants have. But casinos spent more money to make that argument heard, and they have the added weapon of generating hundreds of millions in tax revenues for their host states. In short, restaurants couldn’t control the conversation in those locales. They were over-shouted by a more powerful and persuasive voice.

Pennsylvania has no casinos as of right now, but the state has been empowered to license 14 gaming halls. By stressing the need to put health considerations above business concerns, the PRA may be able to frame the discussion of any bill that emerges from the legislature. It may have acted shrewdly to prevent a repeat on the unfairness against restaurants that prevails in New Jersey and Louisiana.

What looks like insanity could prove a brilliant move, a true flash of fire behind the smoke.

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