POSTED ON FEBRUARY 27, 2008:
Smoke and Fears
Health concerns and pop pulpit prompt passage of smoking ban in all pubs
Nipped in the Butt. A bill making its way through the legislative gauntlet would ban smoking in the last public refuge left to addicts of the tasty but deadly lung snacks.
Oklahoma will soon go the way of California, Ireland and a growing number of other health-conscious, non-smoking parts of the world, if the hopes and fears of some concerned parties come true.
"It'll pass. I know that's the direction we're going," said Robert Johnson, with a modicum of loathing mixed with his resignation.
He owns Cowboy Sharkies sports bar and restaurant, at 58th and Memorial, which has a section designated for smokers.
Johnson is among countless other bar and restaurant proprietors in Tulsa and Oklahoma who are watching a bill currently making its way through the legislative gauntlet, which would ban smoking in the last public refuge left to addicts of the tasty but deadly lung snacks: bars, clubs, taverns and restaurants.
And not just most bars, clubs, taverns and restaurants. Every single one of them.
State Sen. David Myers' Senate Bill 1875 would take away exemptions to the law passed in 2003 that bans smoking in public places.
The old new law made exceptions for establishments that make most of their receipts from alcohol, like bars, and for restaurants with separate rooms with separate ventilation systems preventing second-hand smoke affecting patrons in the non-smoking sections of the restaurant.
Hopefully, those establishments enjoyed it while it lasted (or endured it while it lasted, depending on who's asked). As it's currently written, Myers' proposed law would do away with the bar exception on Nov. 1 this year, and the exception for separately ventilated smoking rooms on March 1, 2013.
"I know this is just one step, and we have a long way to go, but this is a good start," said Myers, R-Ponca City, when the bill passed the Senate Business and Labor Committee by a 5-3 vote last week.
"Too many Oklahomans are facing unnecessary health risks because of secondhand smoke. It kills hundreds of our citizens every year. They need our help," he also said.
Some of those Oklahomans "facing unnecessary health risks" from secondhand smoke are Jesse and Dylan Aycock, who are 26 and 22, respectively.
Their mom, Margee Aycock is among the most vocal advocates for the new law, and the founder of Musicians and Music Lovers for Smoke-Free Listening, a grass roots organization that's been lobbying for the legislation.
She said she formed the group after years of going to see both of her sons perform at many of the bars, clubs and restaurants that are Tulsa's music venues, and got fed up with their constant subjection to secondhand smoke.
"It wasn't just for me, but the fact that my sons are getting sick in these very, very smoky bars," Aycock told UTW.
She said one of her sons is sick year-round, and the other almost fainted once midway through a performance.
"He wasn't getting enough oxygen, there was so much smoke," she said.
Aycock said musicians like her sons typically have to play in thick clouds of the secondhand smoke emitted by about 200 people, for six hours straight, five nights a week, which is worse for the musicians than for the smokers themselves.
"It's just not right," she said.
Aycock said that, since she began her crusade, musicians have approached her and told her, "I am so thankful for you doing this."
She said she expected a lot of opposition and hard feelings for her efforts, but has been surprised by the positive response.
"I've even heard from musicians who are smokers who told me they would prefer to play in a smoke-free environment," Aycock added.
But, the Cowboy Sharkies proprietor called the proposed new law "mansy-pansy" and "wishy-washy."
"They're getting involved in stuff that government has no business getting involved in and making laws against adults doing what they want to do," said Johnson.
About the musicians' plight, he said, "I think they're big kids and if they didn't want the gig, they don't have to take the gig. They're not 12-year-old kids, and we're forcing them up there to sing for their dinner. If they don't like it they can go somewhere else."
Indeed, the website for Aycock's group, www.oksmokefree.blogspot.com, lists a few smoke-free music venues in Tulsa, which include Sound Pony, Kilkenny's, and Bruhouse.
But, Aycock said the smoke-free venues are the exception, not the norm, and there aren't enough smoke-free venues to make a significant dent in the problem.
And, contrary to Johnson's comments, "sing for their dinner" is precisely what the musicians must do, according to Aycock.
"They have to support themselves, and there aren't enough smoke-free venues to do that, and they have to feed their families," she said.
Aycock said the proposed law "doesn't address whether you like to smoke or not, it's about safety in the work place."
Of course, the new law would also affect wait staff at bars.
"Most of them are just trying to work their way through college, and they don't need to be exposed to that," she said.
Aycock added, "It's kind of like telling a factory worker to go somewhere else if he doesn't like the unsafe conditions."
But, that's essentially what Johnson said restaurant operators like him should have the right to do.
"I care about my staff. I treat my staff like my own kids, but they also made the choice to work here, and I've lost staff before because they had allergies and left because of the secondhand smoke," he said.
Johnson is among the minority of restaurants with a separately ventilated smoking section, and he said he prefers his staff spend as little time in it as possible.
He said he objects on principle to the fact that the proposed law would do away with smoking sections like his.
But, Myers told UTW that only about 1 percent of restaurants in Oklahoma have the separately ventilated smoking sections, so the impact from his law would be minimal.
As he sees it, the effect would be negligible even for that one restaurant in 100 with a smoking section.
"Most are never full, in my observation," said Myers.
But, Johnson said his smoking section gives him an advantage of about $2,000 a week.
"I'm one of the few restaurants in town where you can have a rib eye steak and have a cigar at the same time," he said.
Johnson said he had an "unfair advantage over people who couldn't adapt" five years ago when the last statewide smoking ban passed.
When he launched his restaurant six years, the building that became Cowboy Sharkies already had a separately ventilated room, so Johnson was able to comply with the new law without any need to invest more money.
Abdul Alhlou wasn't so fortunate, though.
He's the owner and operator of Silver Flame Steakhouse and Seafood at 61st and Sheridan. After the 2003 law passed, he spent $35,000 to create a smoking section with separate ventilation.
"I did that to accommodate the customers who wanted to smoke. When you have a bar, people like to smoke, people like to drink while they listen to the music," he explained as his reason for the investment.
"Now they're taking it away," he added.
"We complied with everything we were supposed to do, and now they're taking it away in five years," said the exasperated restaurateur.
"It's up to the customer if they want to go in there. We don't twist their arm and say, 'You have to go in this room.' It's up to them," Alhlhou also said.
Myers said disgruntled restaurant owners like Alhlou should take that up with the Oklahoma Restaurant Association if they don't like it.
"Their restaurant association, who they belong to, wants this," he told UTW.
"I realize it's an investment," he added, concerning the newly build smoking rooms. That's why I gave them until 2013," noting that even that deadline is negotiable.
"We're not plowing new ground here," Myers added, noting that 27 other states have already enacted bans on public smoking with no negative impact on business.
Even Ireland--the land renowned for its bars and pubs, has jumped on the smoke-free bandwagon, he pointed out.
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