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With the new year, a fresh breeze will waft through restaurants across Erie County, courtesy of a tough new set of "no smoking" regulations.

Under the new county Health Department laws that go into effect New Year's Day, restaurateurs will have to do a lot more than simply cordon off "smoking" and "nonsmoking" sections. In fact, restaurants will be forced to ban smoking on their premises altogether, unless they offer special smoking rooms with separate ventilation systems.

Restaurant/bar combinations can allow patrons to smoke at the bar, provided the bar area is located a minimum of 15 feet from the dining area, or the bar is isolated by a floor-to-ceiling partition and is served by its own ventilation system.

Bars and nightclubs whose main business is beverages and/or entertainment are exempt from the new regulations as long as less than than 40 percent of their revenues come from food sales.

Some restaurants have gotten ready for the new regulations by creating a separately ventilated area for smokers.

But for the most part, smokers will find themselves standing outside if they need a nicotine fix. A vast majority of local eating establishments are opting to go totally smoke-free, according to Don Spasiano, president of the local chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association.

"Most of our operators will eliminate smoking for good," Spasiano said. "And quite honestly, I think a lot of them are happy the county is stepping into the smoking battle, so they don't have to be the bad guy and tell their customers they can't smoke."

There are restaurant owners who expect to see their business drop off if customers can't have a cigarette with their meal, said Spasiano, who is chairman of the Food Service/Restaurant Management Department at Erie Community College. But he predicts they have nothing to fear.

"If practically every restaurant has a 'no-smoking' policy, it's a level playing field," Spasiano said. "If people like going out to eat, they'll still go out; that won't change."

Dr. Arnold Lubin, Erie County's health commissioner, said fears that restaurants will go out of business solely because their customers aren't allowed to smoke are overblown.

"That's what the tobacco lobby would like to have all of them think. But if it were true, they'd be waving a list of closed restaurants that would stretch from here all the way to Virginia," Lubin said. "It's just not happening."

The commissioner cites the findings of a recent study that analyzes the impact of restaurant smoking restrictions in about 150 communities across the country. That study, conducted by Dr. Stanton Glanz of the University of California, San Francisco, used the amount of state and local sales tax paid by the businesses as a barometer of how smoking bans affected their revenues.

The analysis found no significant impact from the smoking bans, and in some cases, business improved as more nonsmokers took advantage of the smoke-free environments.

"We expect good cooperation from the local restaurant industry for the new rules," Lubin said. "There may be a few hiccups the first few months, but we expect general compliance."

The implementation of the new smoking rules is the second phase of a comprehensive anti-smoking legislation package that saw smoking banned in most public buildings and private workplaces in Erie County in 1997.

The 17-page law is one of New York State's toughest but is in step with a national trend to protect people from secondhand smoke, according to Lubin.

"We're kind of on the cutting edge with this, but when it comes to protecting people's health, that's exactly where we should be," he said. "If the restaurants want to blame the county when people complain about the rules, that's fine by me. But I don't think we need to apologize for inconveniencing the 25 or 26 percent of the population that smokes."

A check with several local restaurants found most plan to put up a "no-smoking" sign on Thursday and pack away the ashtrays.

Mike Stamatikos, a manager at Towne Restaurant at Delaware Avenue and Allen Street, said he doesn't see any other option.

"It's something we are meeting about. But right now, we don't have the completely separate room where we can put the smokers," Stamatikos said.

The popular Greek restaurant has a lot of customers who smoke, according to the manager, especially late at night when the restaurant becomes an after-hours hangout.

"On Friday and Saturday nights, when people come in here after the bars, everybody smokes," he said. "It's going to be tough to try to explain to a bunch of intoxicated people that they'll have to go outside if they want a cigarette. I'm not looking forward to those first few weekends."

At the 10 Perkins restaurants scattered across Erie County, signs were posted several months ago alerting patrons to the coming change. The chain has elected to go "smoke free" rather than attempt to accommodate the smoking minority.

Spasiano, president of the restaurant association, expects the local restaurant industry will get backlash for the next several weeks as customers adjust, but then diners will accept the new way of doing business.

"People have adjusted to having to go outside to have a cigarette when they are at work," he said. "This will be the same thing. The opposition will die down and life will go on."

Shepherds, on Transit Road in Amherst, is one of the few restaurants that has modified its quarters to keep both smokers and non-smokers happy. Owner Dominic Ruzzine said plans to remodel the restaurant last summer created an opportunity to totally enclose the bar to meet the new county smoking standards.

Ruzzine spent more than $40,000 to isolate the bar behind an etched-glass wall and said the change has received rave reviews from his customers. "Most of my clientele is non-smokers, who are ecstatic to to be able to sit anywhere in the restaurant without breathing in smoke," he said.

Ruzzine said his patrons found they still could smell cigarettes even when they sat in the "no smoking" section, so a number of regulars would only accept tables in the restaurant's back room, the farthest point from the bar.

"It had gotten to the point where they'd leave angry if I couldn't fit them in there, so I knew we needed to do something," he added. "My business has actually increased because people know they will be able to taste the great food and not be exposed to someone else's smoke."

Like the smoking laws that went into effect in 1997, the new rules will be policed for the most part by the public, said Lubin.

"We will respond to complaints, and believe me, if restaurants are ignoring the rules, we'll hear about it and contact them to find out what's going on," Lubin said.

Restaurants that ignore the laws can be fined up to $500 per citing.

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