Local eateries prepare for smoking ban

Gov. Richard Codey expected to sign new smoking restrictions into law (Jan. 12)

By: Lauren Burgoon and Marisa Maldonado
   Controversy is raging around New Jersey as the state is set to become the 11th nationwide to ban smoking in most public places, but local bar and restaurant owners are taking the prohibition in stride.
   Restaurants from Anthony’s Italian Restaurant and Pizza in Plumsted to Washington’s local watering hole, Ernie’s Tavern, will be affected by the law.
   Smokers have three months left to take drags indoors; after that all smokers will be kicked to the curb from most indoor public places.
   Gov. Richard Codey vowed to sign the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act into law before he leaves office Tuesday. His signature would automatically transform bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, private clubs and other indoor venues into smoke-free establishments.
   The law, which takes effect after 90 days, had been bandied about in the Legislature for more than a decade until the Assembly passed it Monday on the last day of the Legislature’s lame duck session.
   The ban drew the ire of many restaurant and bar owners, especially in South Jersey, where all Atlantic City casinos are exempt from the restrictions. But locally, owners and patrons seemed nonchalant.
   More customers might be attracted to Anthony’s Italian Restaurant and Pizza if they can eat in a smoke-free environment, manager Frank Pensa said. Smokers currently can sit anywhere they want at the Plumsted restaurant, which is located on Jacobstown Road.
   Mr. Pensa said a smoking ban could be a good idea. The restaurant has considered becoming a nonsmoking eatery several times, mostly because of the health hazards of secondary smoke that particularly affect children. A lot of young people eat lunch at the restaurant when they get a day off school, he said.
   Mr. Pensa said he personally only smokes outside when working.
   "I care about the kids," he said.
   Catherine Palsho, owner of Ernie’s Tavern in Washington, said she isn’t sure how the ban will affect business.
   "I’ve been here 60 years. Years ago everyone had an ashtray in front of them. Now I would say not even half of them do," she said Tuesday. "I know a few of them do enjoy a cigarette with a drink and I feel sorry for them since they’ll have to go outside. People associate drinking with smoking."
   There are no separate smoking areas at Ernie’s, which is normally crowded with regulars who expect there to be smoking. Ventilation helps keep the air clear and Ms. Palsho, a former smoker herself, says she does not notice the smoke.
   Her customers have kept an eye on the smoking ban’s legislative progress, she said.
   "They had quite a discussion the other day. They seemed to be divided. Those who don’t smoke are very much in favor of it," she said. "Other people didn’t think it was fair."
   While smokers have complained their rights are under attack, some nonsmokers are cheering the new ban.
   Finding a place in Plumsted to eat dinner without breathing secondhand smoke is difficult for Mitch Geier. That’s why in 2002 he asked all Plumsted restaurants to prohibit smoking one night a week.
   The plan did not come to fruition, which Mr. Geier said happened because he was not reappointed to the township’s Drug and Alcohol Alliance the following year. But he still sees the necessity for smoke-free restaurants, both for the benefit of patrons and employees.
   "(Smokers) should not have a right to harm other people with secondhand smoke," Mr. Geier said. "There are some very courteous, very considerate smokers, and those who aren’t."
   The rule is especially important in small towns such as Plumsted, where there are few restaurants to choose from, he said.
   "When you have a very small population and the restaurants are catering to that population, it’s very hard for them to even segregate the rest," he said.
   Protecting such patrons is a key reason why Assemblyman Mike Panter, D-12th, sponsored the law, spokeswoman Kerri Danskin said Tuesday. Assemblyman Robert Morgan, D-12th, whose term ended Monday, also co-sponsored the bill.
   "The goal is to address the health of the staff and patrons. A lot of people who complained about the law talked about individual rights of smokers," she said. "(Mr. Panter) is concerned with individual rights — the rights of people who don’t want to breathe in smoke."
   Mr. Panter previously acknowledged that the smoke ban was imperfect, but Ms. Danskin said the law could develop in the future.
   "Most legislators, including Assemblyman Panter, would like to see a more comprehensive law, but this is a good first step," she said. "Legislation by its nature is progressive and slowly incremental."
   She was unsure if Mr. Panter has plans to introduce in the new legislative session a more comprehensive ban that would include casinos.
   Ms. Palsho said including the casinos is the right thing to do.
   "If you can’t smoke anywhere, people will more easily accept (the law)," she said.
   The casino lobby and owners of businesses such as cigar bars are likely to kick up a fuss if the law is tightened further. In the surprisingly unsmokey parlor of Bordentown City’s first cigar bar, the Ashes to Ashes Cigar Shop, news of a public smoking ban couldn’t be greeted with more hope.
   "I’m ecstatic," said owner Joe Salera. "I think it’s great. For me."
   In terms of timing alone, Mr. Salera’s couldn’t be better. Ashes to Ashes opened on Farnsworth Avenue the week preceding Christmas and now stands poised as one of the few spots north of Atlantic City where patrons can — as is encouraged on the shop’s miniflier — "sit, sip, smoke, savor, socialize."
   What started as an extension of one of Mr. Salera’s hobbies has, without his intention, become a place to have a smoke and a bit of spirits — the latter due exclusively to the bar’s bring-your-own policy.
   While he said he has talked with a few of the city’s bar and restaurant owners (and that they have shown little cause for worry), Mr. Salera is quick to understand the primary benefit his smoking lounge offers — a place that doesn’t make tobacco enthusiasts feel like outcasts.
   "A lot of restaurants frown on (cigar smoking) already," Mr. Salera said. "We welcome it."
   Staff Writer Scott Morgan contributed to this article.