New hopes for smoking ban

Thwarted by courts, Princeton’s effort moves to Legislature.

By: Jennifer Potash
   State legislation prompted by efforts of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township to ban smoking in most public places has cleared one legislative hurdle, but faces several more.
   Sen. Shirley Turner’s (D-Lawrence) legislation gives municipalities, local boards of health or regional health commissions the authority to adopt smoking bans. Sens. John Bennett (R-Little Silver) and Peter Inverso (R-Hamilton) are also sponsors.
   The Senate Health and Senior Services Committee voted Thursday to forward the bill to the Budget and Appropriations Committee.
   In 2000, following nearly a year of study and public comment, the Princeton Regional Health Commission adopted an ordinance banning smoking in most public places including restaurants, bars, private clubs and hotel rooms without separate ventilation systems.
   The intent of the ordinance, according to commission members, was to protect patrons and employees from environmental tobacco smoke, commonly known as secondhand smoke, commission members have said. A week after the commission’s vote, the National Smokers Alliance and three Princeton Borough bars and restaurants filed a lawsuit challenging the ordinance.
   Mercer County Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg upheld the challenge, ruling that the Health Commission did not have the authority to enact the measure because state law pre-empts municipalities from adopting limitations on smoking in public places that are more restrictive than state statutes.
   Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton Borough) is co-sponsor of the companion legislation in the Assembly. His legislation is pending before the Assembly’s Health and Senior Services Committee.
   The bill was first introduced in the last legislative session and was referred to the health committees of the Assembly and the Senate.
   The political landscape has changed somewhat since the bill was first introduced in 2001. Control of the Assembly moved from the Republicans to the Democrats. While Republican-led in the last session, the Senate now has an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.
   Also the legislation appears to have bipartisan support with at least two Republicans listed as sponsors.
   During his campaign for governor, then-Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey said municipalities should not be hindered by the state in taking "progressive" steps to improve public health. During a meeting with The Packet’s editorial board, Mr. McGreevey lauded the Princeton Regional Health Commission for taking "a step in the right direction for the state" by adopting the smoking ban, but said as governor he would not push for a statewide ban.
   "In the first six months of a McGreevey administration, we’d be focused on education," he said. "Many of these issues (such as the smoking ban) hopefully will be addressed over four years.
   A spokesman for Gov. McGreevey could not be reached for comment Monday.
   Larry Downs, director of New Jersey Breathes, a coalition of more than 40 statewide groups dedicated to reducing tobacco use in New Jersey, said referring the bill to the Senate’s Budget and Appropriations Committee "sounds political in some ways," pointing out it would lengthen the review process.
   The nonprofit organization submitted an amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief in support of the Princeton ordinance during the 2000 lawsuit.
   Many municipalities in the state would like to ban smoking in bars and restaurants and await the Legislature’s decision, Mr. Downs said.
   But many restaurant and bar owners oppose the legislation pending in the state Senate and Assembly.
   Tom Schmierer, owner of the Alchemist & Barrister on Witherspoon Street, was one of the restaurateurs who sued to overturn the local ordinance. He testified against the proposed legislation before the Senate.
   "It essentially affects businesses in an economic way by creating an unfair playing field," he said. "Customers who can’t smoke in Princeton Borough or Princeton Township will go somewhere else."
   The Alchemist & Barrister offers three nonsmoking dining rooms and one smoking area, he said.
   A member of the board of directors of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, Mr. Schmierer said restaurant owners would like the government to let the market decide which restaurants are smoke-free.
   "Government should stay out of it and let private business decide," he said. All restaurants would be smoke-free voluntarily if that’s what the clientele wanted, Mr. Schmierer said.
   Members of the Princeton Health Commission were pleased with the Senate Health Committee’s vote.
   "We’ll do whatever we can to see that the legislation passes the Assembly and the Senate," said Dr. Norman Sissman, chairman of the Health Commission. Dr. Sissman, along with Health Commission member Grace Sinden, testified before the Senate Health Committee last week.
   Dr. Sissman disagreed with the restaurant and bar owners’ argument that business automatically declines when smoking bans take effect. Bars and eateries in California did not lose business after the state initiated a statewide smoking ban, Dr. Sissman said, citing a study.
   Dr. Sissman said it is very difficult to prevent smoke from reaching the nonsmoking areas in restaurants.
   Princeton Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand, a past president of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, also testified before the Senate Committee in support of the bill.
   "I told them that just like with the township’s deer-management program, which we also wanted to have to protect the public health and safety, the Legislature was wise in allowing municipalities to address their needs and should do the same with smoking in (indoor public places)," Mayor Marchand said.