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PATAKI SAYS SMOKING BILL WOULD COST RESTAURANTS

Dashing hopes by health advocates for a deal to further crack down on smoking in restaurants, Gov. George E. Pataki on Tuesday said he has strong reservations about an anti-smoking measure he said would significantly add to the costs of operating eateries.

In the past week, there has been movement in the State Senate, which has supported the tobacco industry in the past, to ban smoking in all restaurants in the state unless smokers are confined to a separately ventilated room. The Assembly, lobbyists on both sides of the issue say, is expected to back the plan.

But Tuesday, Pataki said he was "concerned about the impact" of such a measure.

"Obviously I am very much against smoking. We have now a very aggressive program against smoking, but I'm concerned if you pass legislation like that, restaurants could be forced to incur tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs to modify their operations," Pataki said.

The governor's comments sent health, tobacco and restaurant lobbyists scurrying Tuesday afternoon. At least two dozen lobbyists on both sides were seen outside the Senate's third-floor chambers, pigeonholing lawmakers to bring them to their camp.

To appease anti-smoking groups, Republicans were offering to pass legislation to ban self-service cigarette displays, forcing stores to sell packs only from behind a sales counter or a locked case. Groups maintain that self-display cases permit easier access to cigarettes by teenagers.

The restaurant plan would apply smoking restrictions already in effect in places like Erie County to all counties across New York. Health groups say the measure is needed to protect nonsmokers and restaurant workers from the dangers of inhaling cigarette smoke that filters throughout a dining room.

But the tobacco industry and restaurant groups insist such matters should be left up to business owners to decide, arguing it would be expensive and unwieldy to deal with on a statewide basis.

"I think it's something we'd have to look at to see if in fact, practically, restaurants -- particularly small restaurants -- could be able to deal with that," Pataki said.

Raising further doubts about the issue were comments made an hour later by Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, who last week said he supported efforts by a fellow Senate Republican to limit smoking in restaurants. He talked at the time of the dangers of secondhand smoke.

But Tuesday, after a week of calls by business interests to him and other GOP lawmakers, Bruno appeared to be backtracking somewhat. "I believe that, sooner or later, it would make sense for the state to have one bill so that people who go from county to county will know what the law is," Bruno said. "I'm supportive of doing something to protect people from the harmful effect of inhaling someone else's smoke, and I'm also very conscious of the rights of individuals who smoke, because smoking is legal."

The developments in the tobacco wars came as the State Senate vowed to end its 2001 legislative session this week, creating pandemonium at the Capitol among lobbyists and special interests battling to kill or keep alive measures on everything stretching from the environment and health care to banking.

In another development, Assembly Democrats proposed a new plan to fund the cleanup of brownfields, such as the old factory sites scattered around Buffalo, while Senate Republicans introduced a measure by Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda, to regulate the growing industry of assisted living centers for elderly people.

The plan would be accomplished by moving more state funding into the projects -- up to 90 percent for priority cleanups, compared to the current 75 percent -- offering economic incentives and tax relief for site cleanups and giving the sponsors of successful projects legal liability exemptions.

The plan calls for community groups to sponsor redevelopment of brownfields in targeted areas.

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