Smoking stinks, but smokers have rights

Feb. 19, 2002

I hate smoking and just about anything connected to it -- the smell, the dirty ashtrays and covering for coworkers who constantly step out for a fix. Touch on any aspect of this issue and you'll likely provoke my ire.

Smoking killed my father, who died of lung cancer at 46. Left in the wake of his risky habit were a wife and four kids between the ages of 13 and 19.

Some of you probably have friends like some of mine, those who smoke and cough continually and then complain between gasps for air that they just "can't seem to get over this cold." Never seems to dawn on these geniuses that the coating of tar inside their lungs has everything do with those recurring respiratory infections.

Yes, I hate smoking.

But you can bet your last carton on this: I'll stand up for a smoker's right to light up in a restaurant.

You read that correctly. If you're a smoker, I support your right to foul the air we share over a pizza.

Why? If an operator wants to let you do it, then that's his right. It's his joint, he pays the rent and therefore he gets to set the rules. Those who don't like the rules can go elsewhere, and those who don't mind can stay.

Government regulation, such as California's statewide restaurant smoking ban (see related story, The Cost of Going Smokeless), usurps every Golden State operators' right to provide their customers with the dining experience of their choice. If a diner wants to coat her palate with cigarette smoke before eating, that's her problem. As long as the operator allows it, so be it. He's clearly within the law to do so.

Some say California's smoking ban also was intended to protect employees as well as nonsmoking customers.

Nice gesture, but get real.

How many restaurant employees can say -- with a straight face -- that they are truly health-minded? Maybe things have changed since I was in operations, but the after-hours behavior exhibited by me, the servers, cooks and dishwashers I worked with was far more dangerous than any eight-hour shift in the smoking section. (Anthony Bourdain's frightfully accurate book, Kitchen Confidential tells a story about restaurant life with which my former colleagues and I are all too familiar, but none too proud.)

I chose to work in that environment even though I didn't always like it, and I put up with the rotation of serving tables in the smoking section because I liked the money more. That was my choice, and I'd make the same one again.

Let Them Choose, Too

If smokers are too dumb to realize what they're doing to themselves -- and I'm confident they're not -- forbidding smoking at restaurants won't help them. They'll just do it elsewhere.

And if nonsmokers don't have enough guts to vote with their feet and find smoke-free restaurants, then they're in for tougher challenges in this life than avoiding second-hand smoke.

The town where I live has a lot of really good restaurants, some of which are buildings with poor ventilation. And if I'm not in the mood to put up with someone else's smoke, I simply won't go there.

But if the food and service are so good that I'll tolerate a couple hours' discomfort, I just might stay. It all depends on which is the lesser of two evils at the moment: missing out on a fantastic meal, or sucking up some second-hand smoke.

The fact is, smoking is legal in the U.S., and in states like Kentucky and North Carolina, where tobacco taxes represent significant portions of each state's revenues, laws against smoking aren't likely to pass any time soon.

We don't need them anyway, because restaurant operators already are doing a fair enough job separating smokers and non-smokers. I'm generally confident that when I'm seated in the nonsmoking section at most restaurants, my meal will be smoke free.

Supporters of smoke-free restaurants say operators should outfit their dining rooms with ventilation systems that clean up the air. Great idea, but someone has to pay for it, and that, the National Restaurant Association estimates, can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $125,000.

Think of the menu price increases needed to foot that bill.

In the meantime, operators, be proactive and ask your customers what they think about smoking in your restaurant. Do some customer-preference polls with table tent surveys, or have your servers or counterworkers ask customers directly.

Chances are you'll find that the vast majority of people are fine with the current separate section set-up, and that the hardcore anti-smoking crowd is a tiny minority whose voice seems gigantic because it's usually screamed through the empty and sonorous heads of demagogues seeking an issue to champion.

The results of those surveys will help you remember that the best you can do is meet the bulk of your customers' needs most of the time, and not to worry about the complaints of a frazzled few.

Topics: Commentary

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