Reaction to tobacco laws mixed

“Please no smoking on the patio.”

At the Midnight Blues Club in downtown Waterville, that sign went up near the club’s entrance, appropriately enough, at the stroke of midnight on Sept. 12.

Since posting the sign, club employees have needed to tell only one person to stop smoking on the outdoor patio area and instead move to the nearby sidewalk, club manager Mary Gagne said last week.

That’s required under a new state law — in effect since Sept. 12 — that prohibits smoking in outdoor areas owned by eating establishments where food and drink are served.

The law is intended to curb peoples’ exposure to secondhand smoke further. Gov. John Baldacci is supporting the law as part of his efforts to make Maine a healthier state and reduce tobacco use. Maine is now the third state in the country to ban smoking in outdoor dining areas, according to the American Lung Association of Maine.

Not surprisingly, Gagne said, smokers have griped about the new law, and nonsmokers say they love it. The law’s timing worked out well, she said, because now the weather is often too chilly to entice many diners to eat outdoors, and the patio will be closed up in early October anyway.

“They got their summer’s worth,” she said of smokers.

The city of Portland first passed the outdoor-smoking ban in dining areas; the new state law was modeled after that one.

The new ban applies to decks and patios of any eating establishment where food and drink are served, including restaurants, bars and snack bars. The law requires signs to be posted notifying patrons about the prohibition.

Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said she’s heard “nothing but positive” comments from people about the new law.

The state banned smoking in indoor dining areas a decade ago and in bars five years ago.

Mills thinks it’s “fascinating” how there was “such a small amount of push-back” over the new law.

“People have come to expect that when they’re in public, the air is going to be clear of smoke,” Mills said.

Despite the lack of public noise about the new law, dining establishment owners in central Maine sharply disagree about it.

Steve Casey, owner of The Depot pub on Maine Avenue in Gardiner, said he’s unhappy with the law, which he sees as a needless regulation by the state government that further burdens private businesses that are already heavily regulated.

“There are quite a few establishment owners like myself who created areas for people to go and smoke,” Casey said. “So we got rid of indoor smoking, and now that’s not enough for them. People that go out to a restaurant or pub, there is a certain percentage of them that will go out and have a smoke, and where would you like me to have them go?”

Casey said he does not smoke, but sympathizes with customers who do.

“It’s not about increasing business — that’s for a narrow-minded business point of view,” Casey said. “It’s about trying to make people comfortable and having a place for people to go out.”

Sandra Darby, manager of Mainely Brews on Main Street in Waterville, said she is pleased with the law, because she’s observed smokers on the outdoor patio who haven’t taken the initiative to be respectful of others and move elsewhere — even if children are nearby.

“We can’t force people to be respectful, other than this law,” Darby said.

The issue of forcing all establishments and patrons in Maine is what disturbs others. Joyce Walters, owner of Joyce’s restaurant in Hallowell, said she has never allowed people to smoke at her establishment’s outdoor patio area.

“I did it because of the mess. I don’t like (cigarettes) on the ground,” Walters said. “People have complained. I’ve had people light up, thinking they could because it would outside; but they’re nice about it.”

Even so, Walters doesn’t necessarily agree with the new law, because “it ought to be up to the owner,” she said.

That’s the view of Richard Grotton, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Restaurant Association, who bemoans the one-size-fits-all approach. For establishments on the coast, where it’s windy, outdoors smoking might not be an issue because the smoke is blown away, he said.

“I think it’s going to be an expensive thing for our industry,” Grotton said. “Smokers are now regulated out of establishments altogether. There comes a point where it just gets totally absurd; I think we’re there.”

The new law will hurt businesses, he said. For example, the law would appear to apply to resorts or event centers that host outdoor wedding receptions, Grotton said, which is “going to force people who have significant numbers of smokers in their family to host those parties on their own property.”

It also will discourage the business of smoking tourists, he said.

“So, once again, Maine drives business elsewhere,” Grotton said. “We’re experts at it now.”

Mills maintains that the new law will be beneficial for Maine families and visitors, while protecting restaurant and bar employees and patrons.

“The scientific evidence on the health risks associated with exposure to secondhand smoke is overwhelming,” Mills said. “Just because you’re outside in the open air doesn’t mean you’re protected from the dangers of secondhand smoke.”

Scott Monroe — 861-9253

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