Waiting to Inhale

To ban or not to ban, that could be the question on a ballot near you.

Now here's an unusual alliance: the Florida Restaurant Association (FRA) and Big Tobacco. Turns out the two groups are banding together in hopes of preventing a state referendum banning smoking in Florida restaurants from even appearing on the November ballot.

Along with the Committee for Responsible Solutions, the FRA better work as fast as a teenager gets addicted to cigarettes. Ballots are printed in August, which means the state's Supreme Court will be making a decision within the next two months on whether this measure will be available for public vote.

What's that? Do I want the FRA to block the referendum? You bet your nicotine patch I do.

Here's the full-disclosure deal: My feelings about smoking -- in restaurants or out of them -- are divided. I have been a smoker. I am not one now, though I'd hesitate to classify myself as an ex-smoker, as I never did develop the requisite disgust for the habit. I still long for the slightly illicit feel of a cigarette in my hand, the quick hit of hot smoke in my lungs, the rev of nicotine in my blood. The one thing I don't miss is the constant wrinkling of noses around me when I lit up -- that and the lingering smell of smoke on clothes, hair, skin, and breath. And when it comes to that telltale odor in restaurants, I have to agree with Viviana Carballo, former Herald restaurant critic, when she notes: "I respect the right of smokers to choose. I just don't want them smoking in my soup!"

But my feelings about smoking have nothing to do with my support for opposing the proposition. Quite simply, smokers in general are also drinkers. Drinkers are big spenders. Follow the syllogism? Big spenders are good for business. And these days the restaurant trade can't afford to be too picky about who's blowing smoke and where.

Restaurateur John Henningsen disagrees. The owner of Goodies Eatery in Tallahassee, he not only signed the petition put forth by Smoke-Free for Health, his signature was a landmark No. 500,000. Smoke-Free for Health has supporters in big places, such as on the boards of the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Society; all told, about 80 nonprofit organizations are behind the push.

These numbers, as they stand or increase, may very well reflect statewide public opinion. Which is why we in the Miami-Dade restaurant community need to realize that our situation is a little precarious. Restaurant publicist Dindy Yokel believes since "[Miami] seems to be the smoking capital of the U.S. right now, [a ban] could truly hurt business." John Ireland, a division manager for Southern Wine and Spirits, is even more vocal. "We are a worldwide tourist destination," he says. "Tell a tourist from France, Italy [any European for that matter], Canada, and South America they cannot smoke, [and] they will not come. It killed California when they did it. They still have not regained what they lost."

Naturally a compromise, if one could be reached given that both sides are about as stubborn as countries in the Middle East, would be the most obvious solution. Carballo suggests that different kinds of restaurants designate themselves smoking or nonsmoking. A sports bar, she proclaims, can be totally smoking because "you don't go there for a fine meal." But at a place like Pascal's on Ponce, where "the space is small and cozy and the food exquisite," she says, "smokers can sit on the sidewalk or stay home."

Stay home is exactly what Yokel would do. "A ban would make me antsy at meals and keep me standing outside on the street instead of [inside] spending money," she says. "And since I won't smoke on the street -- it isn't ladylike -- I would spend more time at home where I could be more comfortable."

Obviously smoking sections hold some appeal as well, though strict mandates haven't really worked. Last October Florida law decreed that a restaurant could only designate 35 percent of its seats as smoking, leaving 65 percent for those who actually wish to breathe. But it's easy to see, as irate reader Ron Bennefield points out, that the Department of Hotels and Restaurants is clearly not enforcing the matter.

On the other hand, Anna Elena Pedron, Norman Van Aken's assistant, is European, and she bases her opinion on the exposure she's had to smokers all her life: "If people wish to smoke, then let them, that is their business. They should be considerate and smoke in designated areas or outside. Same applies to drinking. If people drink, they should be considerate and not overdo it and become rude and obnoxious to people around them. There are lots of drinkers out there like that, but we are not trying to ban alcohol, are we?"

Well, no, we already tried that during a little glitch in common sense called Prohibition, when we learned that the American people have limited tolerance for governmental interference in their lives. Indeed that's the tack the FRA is taking -- allow self-regulation. Many restaurateurs already have made some wise choices. Tony Sindaco, chef-owner of the 35-seat Sunfish Grill in Pompano Beach, runs a completely nonsmoking restaurant. "I'm on the side of the smokers," he admits. "But if one table lights up [in here], then it's pretty much everywhere." Sindaco's solution is to provide a few tables and benches outside the restaurant for smokers who wish to take breaks between courses.

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