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Bar owners, anti-smokers odd bedfellows

Bars and smoke may seem inseparable partners. But in the first year of Ohio’s statewide smoking ban, an association of bar owners became the anti-tobacco movement’s greatest friend.

It was a strange-bedfellow accident of politics.

The powerful and well-funded Ohio Licensed Beverage Association was fighting to keep fraternal clubs and veterans groups — such as VFW halls and Moose lodges — from landing special smoking privileges that the association perceived would give those venues an edge over bars. In the process, the association scored two major court victories that prevented smoking from wafting back into places where it had been prohibited.

To Tracy Sabetta, co-chair of Smoke Free Ohio, which put the smoking ban issue on the 2006 ballot, letting the Ohio Department of Health’s exceptions for veterans’ and fraternal groups stand could easily have set off a domino effect of smoking exemptions.

Sabetta doesn’t give the Licensed Beverage Association all the credit, noting that the American Cancer Society where she works filed a similar lawsuit against the Health Department rules. But she does see the irony.

“So rarely do these two sides end up on the same side of an argument,” she said.

Jacob Evans, a lobbyist for the Licensed Beverage

Association, laughs at the idea of the two groups being pals. It was his association that crafted a less stringent smoking ban in 2006 and worked to place it alongside Sabetta’s issue on the ballot. That issue lost.

“I would be in shock if they said we’ve been friends of the Cancer Society,” he said. “I don’t know what they think of us. Regardless of what we thought was best, we proceeded with what the voters approved two Novembers ago to make sure bar owners were protected.”

Evans’ group intends to continue pushing its message in the state Legislature this year: the smoking restrictions are bad for business.

“Absolutely we have some members that have a clientele that doesn’t care to have smoking, and they will continue not to,” he said. “But there are a great deal of our members whose businesses are dying on the vine because of this.”

Sabetta heads into 2008 armed with poll findings that suggest the less smoke Ohioans encounter, the more they like it.

A survey conducted in November found that 80 percent of Ohio voters support the smoking ban a year in, compared to 58 percent who voted for it in 2006. The ban made cigarettes off limits in workplaces, public buildings, offices, restaurants and bars.

The reason for the increase?

“It was that they have enjoyed going out to bars and restaurants and bowling alleys and not having to be exposed to the smoke, they can now work and play smoke-free,” Sabetta said. “And they recognize it’s a health hazard.”

More than half of those surveyed also said they are more likely to visit a bar or restaurant now that smoking is prohibited — 53 percent for restaurants, and 55 percent for bars. (A little less than half said the same for bowling alleys.)

But Evans said those statistics aren’t yet being felt by bars that belong to his association.

“The reason we brought the (legal) action was if the Department of Health’s rules were allowed to stand, what has been a slow death for bars would have been sped up greatly,” he said.

He is awaiting word on whether Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann will appeal the ruling of the Ohio 10th District Court of Appeals — which upheld a lower court ruling that said the ban also applies to veterans’ groups and fraternal clubs.

Until then, Sabetta said the smoking rate in Ohio continues to fall. It now stands at 20.5 percent, down from 26.3 percent in 2000.

Julie Carr Smyth is a reporter for The Associated Press.