By most accounts, Erie County has made impressive gains with its Clean Air Act, restricting or barring smoking in more and more areas of the workplace and public buildings. But today brings a new and significant addition as smoking is tightly restricted in restaurants. Public dining places must either provide separately ventilated rooms for smokers or ban smoking inside altogether.
Non-smokers can get ready to be delighted as the meals they pay for are no longer tainted by fumes from a few tables over in the smoking area. It will be interesting to see whether their increased pleasure in eating out brings in enough new money to balance the lost business from smokers who can no longer linger so easily for a second after-dinner smoke over coffee.
But the issue can't primarily be a commercial one. No one can still believe that smoking doesn't pose serious risks to a smoker's own health and, in enclosed areas, to the health of others through the thickening cloud of second-hand smoke. That's the bottom line. So the Erie County law, one of the toughest in the state, is also likely to yield among the most generous health benefits.
"We're kind of on the cutting edge with this," says Dr. Arnold Lubin, the county health commissioner, "but when it comes to protecting people's health, that's exactly where we should be." He's right. Erie is setting a good example for other counties to follow.
The road to smoke-free air -- and healthier lungs -- isn't without its rough spots. Some people like to smoke, and their options are more restricted now. Some would like to quit but find the task daunting; anyone who has tried knows the temptations of a relentlessly insidious habit. And some Catholic parishes find themselves in a bind as smokers stay home from bingo.
But the county is doing the right thing.
As for the fears of lost profits for restaurants, there's not much to back them up. If tightened restrictions or smoking bans have caused substantial and enduring loss of business anywhere, nobody has produced any long list of affected establishments.
On the contrary, one study, conducted by a faculty member on the University of California, checked the sales taxes paid by restaurants in 150 communities around the country. The study found no significant impact from smoking, Dr. Lubin reports, and in some cases business improved as more non-smokers ventured into the newly smoke-free eateries.
To comply with the tightened rules here, some restaurants such as Shepherd's in Amherst have set up the required, separately ventilated room for smoking patrons. That accommodates those who do smoke and those who don't. But many restaurants, smaller or with less capital to work with, will simply bar smoking inside.
Don Spasiano, president of the local chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association, says some owners are even happy about the law. "They don't have to be the bad guy and tell their customers they can't smoke."
Certainly. If it will help, let restaurateurs blame County Hall for its good deed.