Nothing evokes a bygone era quite like walking into a tavern or social club and being greeted with the stale odor of cigarettes, both lit and smoked long ago.

Pennsylvania lawmakers took positive steps more than a decade ago to improve public health and safety when they passed the Clean Indoor Air Act in 2008. The law banned smoking in most public spaces, including restaurants, taverns and workplaces.

That inconvenienced smokers but offered welcome relief to nonsmokers. They no longer had to contend with secondhand smoke as they worked or dined out.

Trying to enjoy a meal or a drink or perform job duties in a haze of secondhand smoke is not simply unpleasant. Secondhand smoke is lethal. As reporter Matthew Rink detailed, according to the American Lung Association, secondhand smoke kills 7,330 people from lung cancer and 33,950 people from heart disease every year.

But the Clean Indoor Air Act did not, in fact, guarantee clean indoor air. It carved out a host of exceptions. Under certain conditions, smoking was still permitted in some places, including casinos, social clubs, and taverns where food sales make up less than 20 percent of the business receipts.

Smokers flock to such places now. That is why business owners like Bruce Hoffman believe if the exemptions were removed, businesses like his taverns — Bruce’s Pub & Grub and Darcy’s Pub & Grub, where smoking is allowed — would suffer.

We have mixed feelings, but we think Erie state Sen. Dan Laughlin’s plan to seek to close most of these loopholes deserves consideration. As first detailed by the PA Post, Laughlin intends to introduce legislation that would remove several exemptions, including those that allow smoking in private clubs and drinking establishments with modest food sales.

As Laughlin rightly stresses, the exceptions to the Clean Indoor Air Act are not fair to employees who might have to spend shifts immersed in smoke. They also, as he notes, create an uneven playing field between taverns and clubs.

There is an argument to be made to simply let the market decide this debate. Changes in attitudes might one day end smoking in the places now exempt under the law. As the PA Post detailed, the number of drinking establishments seeking exceptions under the law has dropped from 2,900 in 2009 to less than 1,200 today.

Smokers and businesses that profit from them are likely to oppose Laughlin’s legislation. But the bans to an extent are not about them. Smoking is a dangerous habit that smokers are free to embrace. But the act is not neutral. Competing interests are at play. Public health should win out over public accommodations for a toxic addiction.

— The Erie Times-News

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