Cloud of confusion envelops Michigan smoking ban

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With less than a month before Michigan’s smoking ban goes into effect, the state isn’t sure who should enforce the law, and counties are warning it shouldn’t be them.

The impasse comes as the state is fielding hundreds of calls from owners of restaurants to pool halls, even hookah bars, looking for clarity on how to comply with what becomes law on May 1.

Michigan will become the 38th state to limit smoking in public places including government buildings, workplaces, bars and restaurants. Besides enforcement questions, there’s confusion over other aspects of the law, such as how big “no smoking” signs should be, whether charity events fall under the statute, the dimensions of outdoor smoking areas and who will monitor work forces.

Lawmakers are also getting resistance from veterans groups who want an exemption so they can light up in private clubs.

“What we have to do is figure out some details to make sure people are in compliance, and that we have a law people can follow,” said state Department of Community Health spokesman James McCurtis. The biggest aspect of the law facing state health officials is determining who will police establishments to ensure patrons don’t get away with sneaking a smoke.

“Most likely it will be the local health departments (enforcing the ban). It will fall into restaurant inspections (and) it will be complaint based,” McCurtis said.

“It’s not quite concrete, but I guarantee it will be concrete by May 1,” he added. “I’m sure some (local health departments) may be unhappy.”

Count Oakland County in that group.

Kathy Forzley, manager of the Oakland County Health Division, said if the county hears a business isn’t conforming, “Complaints will be referred back to the state.”

“With dwindling funding and trying economic times, implementing a new law without attached funding is very difficult,” she said. “That’s something we’re continuing to try and work out with the state.” Forzley could not estimate how much county officials think enforcement will cost.

Health department officials in Wayne and Macomb counties said they will enforce the smoking ban along with their regular restaurant inspection programs — but that could leave a gap for workplaces that don’t sell food or drink.

The law, signed in December, snuffs out smoking in workplaces and everywhere food and drink is served. Cigar bars, tobacco specialty stores, some home offices and motor vehicles are exempt. Detroit’s casinos can allow smoking on the gaming floors, but not in bars, restaurants and hotels.

Individuals or a business can be ticketed for violating the law, with fines of up to $100 for a first offense and up to $500 for additional offenses. Establishments that continue to break the law could ultimately lose their licenses.

McCurtis said the extent of a local health department’s enforcement responsibility — including whether it would be issuing the tickets or collecting the fines — has not been determined.

State officials plan to use education as the primary means of enforcement, and only issue tickets as a last resort, McCurtis said. “What we truly want from this is compliance,” he said. “We just want businesses to comply.”

So many questions

Golf courses, pool halls, restaurants, taverns and bowling alleys have questions about how to comply with the new law, said Andy Deloney, vice president of public affairs for the Michigan Restaurant Association, which opposed the ban.

Lawmakers “didn’t see the mountain of ice underneath the surface of the water,” Deloney said. “Where do the signs have to be posted? What about charity dinners? What about smokeless tobacco? That’s just a tip of the iceberg.”

According to the state: Signs must be posted at the entrances and exits of businesses and anywhere smoking is banned; smoking would not be allowed at charity dinners, and smokeless tobacco is included in the law’s definition of tobacco products.

Still, “Some things may have to be decided in the court of law because it’s going to be left up to interpretation,” McCurtis said.

For Michigan’s several hundred hookah proprietors and distributors, the law could drastically alter business.

Almost 200 hookah bar owners and operators, from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo to Dearborn, attended a recent meeting sponsored by the American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn to try to clarify aspects of the law.

Hookah bar owners have to decide whether to become restaurants or apply for the tobacco specialty store license to become exempt from the law.

“People like to get together and smoke hookah,” said Akram Allos, owner of Sinbad Grand Café, a hookah bar in Dearborn. He said he plans to eliminate his cafe business and become a smoke shop, a decision that could endanger his family’s welfare and the livelihood of his eight employees.

“If I go with the rules and regulations, then I’m not in the food business ,” Allos said. “The profit that comes from food and drink isn’t much, but it pays the bills.”

Saying goodbye to cigars

Many of Metro Detroit’s private clubs plan to comply with the ban and prohibit smoking in their clubhouses come May 1. The Detroit Athletic Club, where smoking is part of a tradition, threw a Final Formal Cigar Night to bid farewell to cigar smoking.

At the Heathers Club in Bloomfield Hills, cigars also will be a thing of the past — it’s unlikely to generate at least 10 percent of its gross annual sales from on-site cigar sales as the law states, general manager Jeff Carley said.

Detroit’s three casinos, whose gaming floors are exempt from the ban, don’t expect the law to have a significant impact on their business.

Banning smoking from casino bars and restaurants will “level the playing field” with other dining establishments, said Marvin Beatty, a partner in Greektown Casino.

Permitting smoking on the gaming floors will allow Detroit’s casinos to compete with Michigan’s 18 tribal casinos, which are not covered by state law and would be immune from any smoking ban adopted in Lansing.

“There’s no reason why we should lose business and there’s no reason why we should gain any,” Beatty said.

Veterans protest ban

Thousands of Michigan veterans have launched an informal petition drive asking lawmakers to amend the law to exempt private clubs that are not open to the public — such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts.

About 100 vets from World War II, Korea and Vietnam delivered more than 3,500 signatures Saturday to state Reps. Phillip Pavlov, Douglas Geiss, D-Taylor, and Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, during their visit to the Royal Canadian Legion Post No. 84 in Royal Oak, organizers said.

“It worries me because you’re taking away right after right after right,” said Rich Page, 68, a cigar smoker and U.S. Navy veteran from Jenison who is a member of American Legion Post 179 in Grandville.

Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, said he didn’t support the ban because he considered smoking a personal property right. Although he was there to pick up the petitions, he thinks it’s too soon to propose an amendment — and lawmakers are too busy resolving the state’s budget crises to revisit the smoking issue.

“Smokers and nonsmokers alike have stated they will have a very big issue with sending an 85-year-old World War II veteran, for instance, outside of their private club to 11 Mile to smoke a cigar, pipe or cigarette,” said Steve Mace, 37, first vice commander at the Royal Canadian Legion post in Royal Oak, who helped launch the petition drive.

Source:Detroitnews.com/Karen Bouffard

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