Source: Nation's Restaurant News

Date: April 16, 2001

Byline: Michael O'Neal

Section: Opinion

I have been active in several restaurant associations for the past 35 years. I've served as president of the New York State Restaurant Association as well as president of the New York City chapter. I was a member of the board of the National Restaurant Association for nine years and have been an honorary director for 17 years. I've lobbied on the side of the restaurant industry for all of those years in New York; Albany, N.Y.; and Washington, D.C. Always I had the plight of the small-business man in mind.

Having said that, I feel strongly that it is pro-business and pro-health to eliminate smoking in all workplaces, including restaurants.

Smoke-free workplace legislation does not hurt business. Smoking prohibitions in California, Utah, Vermont, Maryland and Maine as well as in hundreds of cities all over the country prove that smoke-free-workplace legislation is good for all businesses, including the restaurant business. That shouldn't be a surprise. Even smokers prefer to breathe clean air.

I constantly am asked why I don't ban smoking at my bar. Change is scary, and I don't want to be different from everyone else. I want a level playing field.

My goal is not to outlaw smoking, but to outlaw smoking in the workplace. No one, including waitresses and bartenders, in the course of doing his or her job should have to breathe something that causes cancer.

As life goes on, many of us lose loved ones to cancer. We learn more about how the tobacco industry knowingly has lied to us during the past 50 years.

I'm tired of that Philip Morris advertisement on television, telling what a good citizen Philip Morris is because it brings water in Miller bottles to hurricane victims. Philip Morris spends millions of dollars on that advertisement, while it spends only several thousands of dollars to truck in the water. As teens in Florida say about the Philip Morris campaign: "We know what you're doing. We know why you're doing it. And we're not going to stop until everybody knows."

Dr. Dileep G. Bal, the head of the American Cancer Society, testified that the smoke that comes off the unfiltered end of a lighted cigarette is six times more deadly than the smoke that is drawn in through a filter. When I heard the testimony, I felt unhappy about exposing my workers to the smoke. A bartender who works behind a bar for a normal, eight-hour shift breathes unfiltered smoke that is the equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Fifty-three thousand Americans die each year from exposure to secondhand smoke.

The proof is in: Tobacco smoke -- both firsthand and secondhand -- kills. No one disputes that anymore. We owe our workers a safe, healthy work environment.

When it is so evident that secondhand smoke is a killer, it becomes government's obligation to protect the health of workers. Secondhand smoke is a Group A carcinogen, the same as benzene, asbestos and radon. Given those facts, I understand, accept and welcome government's involvement. This is a health issue, not a rights issue.

So who are the people in the restaurant business afraid of losing as customers? For the most part, they have been frightened by the tobacco-company propaganda. They all are hard-working, small-business people who fear they will be put out of business if smoke-free-workplace legislation is enacted. The only thing that will negatively affect our businesses will be a general downturn in the economy, which may be happening.

The evidence is in: Secondhand smoke kills. It's time "to ride the horse in the direction it's going." Our industry should be leading the charge, not fighting it.