Taverns line up for smoking pass

3,000 apply for exemption from Pa. law

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More than 3,000 taverns and businesses have applied for exemption from the statewide smoking ban -- a total that does not surprise the state Department of Health.

"I'd say we're OK with receiving only 3,000 applications," department spokeswoman Holli Senior said.

But the executive director of the Pennsylvania Tavern Association in Harrisburg said more applications for exemptions are likely on their way, especially now that mom-and-pop taverns have lost customers to private clubs, where smoking still is permitted.

Amy Christie said there are 16,000 licensed taverns or drinking establishments in the state, including 4,000 franchise restaurants and 3,500 private clubs. That leaves about 8,500 mom-and-pop taverns that, based on previous trends, typically split 50-50 between smoking and nonsmoking, based on customer base.

For that reason, she predicts 4,000 or more establishments ultimately will apply for a smoking exemption, or 1,000 more than already have applied.

"I'm not surprised by the 3,000 number," Ms. Christie said. "I expect it to get larger. You do what's best for your business."

The Clean Indoor Air Act, which took effect Sept. 11, allows taverns whose food sales are less than 20 percent of total revenues to allow smoking, as long as their application is approved by the health department. Other businesses, including cigar and tobacco shops, also can qualify for exemptions. Private clubs can allow smoking if their officers vote for it.

Taverns and businesses that applied for exemption by the Sept. 10 deadline can allow smoking while their applications are under review. Ms. Senior said the health department hopes to process all applications within 45 days. Any tavern or shop that does not meet state qualifications will be forced to go smoke-free.

Any tavern or shop that applied for an exemption after the deadline also must remain smoke-free until the department reviews its application and gives it approval to allow smoking.

Ms. Senior said the department has yet to figure out the number of exemptions per county or region. In time, the department will post all exempt businesses on its Web site at www.health.state.pa.us, she said.

Since the ban took effect Sept. 11, the department has received about 75 complaints of illegal smoking.

Ms. Senior said the department is allowing a grace period focused on education, rather than fines of up to $1,000, to give people a chance to learn the law and adapt to the ban.

But Ms. Christie said some eating establishments already are taking action to counter the ban by separating their bar operations from their restaurants so they can allow smoking in the bar.

That is possible, she said, if the bar has no common doors with the restaurant and each has a separate entrance.

"I think these are pretty complex issues, and there are a lot of different perspectives the whole way around," Ms. Christie said. "We're going to sit back and see what happens."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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