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The hospitality industry says it needs more time to comply with WCB smoking regulations; health advocates say the hospitality industry is stalling

The days of smoking in bars and restaurants are numbered. What that number will wind up being, however, has yet to be determined.

As it currently stands, amended Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) regulations that prohibit business owners from exposing employees to ETS are scheduled to come into effect on Sept. 10 – the Workers’ Compensation Board approved the amendments on March 8, reasoning that six months notice was ample for employers to get up to speed.

The Coalition of Hospitality Organizations disagrees, and has asked the provincial government to delay the implementation of the new ETS regulations to give bars and restaurants more time to get into compliance.

According to Vance Campbell, the spokesperson for the coalition and the vice president of the Cabaret Owners Association of B.C., the province has yet to respond but members are doubtful that their request will be granted in time.

"We made a request and they’re considering it, but that’s all we know," says Campbell. "You have to go through three levels of government at this point. You have to go through the city, you have to go through the liquor board, you have to go through the WCB, and we don’t think it’s going to be done by Sept. 10."

There is some hope that the newly elected Liberal party will be more sympathetic to the business concerns of bar and restaurant owners than the outgoing NDP. In a March 9 release, Campbell questioned the right of the NDP to make this kind of decision at all, calling it "a shameful, cynical political move by the government in the last days of its mandate."

According to a study commissioned by the hospitality coalition, bar and restaurant business declined 12.7 per cent across the province the first time the ETS regulations were put into place, from Jan 1, 2000 to March 22, 2000. They estimate that it cost businesses $100 million, bankrupted nine bars and restaurants, and led to a loss of over 730 hospitality jobs.

At the same time, the coalition estimated that up to 60 per cent of bars and restaurants in the province didn’t even bother to comply. From the beginning they argued that better ventilation was the key; that bar and restaurant staff don’t necessarily want the protection of the WCB because it will affect their gratuities; that visitors don’t understand or appreciate the regulations, and that could adversely affect the province’s tourism industry.

The B.C. Liquor Licencees and Retailers Association and the owner of one establishment hurt by the smoking ban challenged the regulations in court, and Supreme Court Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein sided with the hospitality industry. The Supreme Court ruled that the "public hearings conducted were insufficient to meet the requirements" of the Workers’ Compensation Act, which requires public hearings on any new regulations.

Public hearings were held on a general set of regulations banning ETS from the workplace, but at the time bars, restaurants and entertainment venues were exempted. These establishments were later included by the WCB, but no new public hearings were held on the issue.

The same day that the regulations were struck down, the WCB reasserted its mandate to ban smoking around all employees, including those in the bar and restaurant industries. Over the spring and summer of 2000 they held public hearings and completed an economic study of the issue, which was ordered by former NDP Labour Minister Joy MacPhail.

That study recognized that there would be short-term impacts to business, but in every case where smoking bans have been implemented – including Scotland, California and Vermont – there was no long-term loss of revenues, closures, or impacts on tourism.

While first quarter liquor sales at hotels, restaurants, cabarets and pubs were down in 2000 when compared to the previous year, the report says they were still ahead of 1998 tallies. Hotel tallies were significantly down, restaurant figures were up, and pubs and cabaret sales were down slightly. At the same time, overall sales of beer, wine and spirits dipped to their lowest point in over a year at the start of the ban. But by the time the ban was lifted sales were above average. The report also estimates that liquor licencees lost less than $10 million in revenues during the duration of the first ban, which is significantly less than the $100 million they claimed.

Because the original ban was in place for less than three months, there is no way to predict what the long term effects of a smoking ban will be, but based on experiments in Europe and the U.S., business either remained the same or increased. There was less employee absenteeism as a result of second hand smoke, and staff morale improved. And while customers may have stayed away in the beginning to protest the new laws, they either came back or were replaced by non-smokers who avoided smoking areas in the past. Even some smokers had positive things to say about the law.

After holding four public forums across the province, and studying the economic impact, the WCB amended the ETS regulation to allow smoking indoors, but only in separately ventilated rooms. Staff are not allowed to work in those rooms while they are in use.

Now bar and restaurant owners say they need more time to build the infrastructure needed to be in compliance with the new regulations. According to the WCB study it will cost between $3,000 and $16,000 for each business to comply with the new regulations, with an average cost of about $10,000. About half of that total is the cost of installing a separate ventilation system for the smoking room.

"It’s not easy, and it isn’t cheap" says Campbell. "It’s getting all the permits and drawings and all the regulatory bodies in sync and in step at the same time." Construction work is required in many cases, which means architectural drawings and approval from fire and safety inspectors.

Campbell doesn’t know how long bars and restaurants will need to become compliant. "We’ve asked the government to consider a delay, and we’ll have to see what they come back with."

Campbell acknowledged that coalition members have been in discussions with their MLAs, and that the current word on the street is that Liberal Labour Minister Graham Bruce is expected to announce a delay soon.

The coalition has also said they will ask the new Liberal government to review the WCB regulations, and take a second look at the ventilation option.

Groups that support the new smoking regulations said that bars and restaurants have been given enough time to bring their establishments up to speed, and are angered that the hospitality coalition is seeking an extension.

The Clean Air Coalition of B.C. is one of those groups, and responded by suggesting that the hospitality organizations are trying to stall the process and dodge the regulations.

In an interview with MyBC.com, Clean Air Coalition spokesperson Jack Boomer said bars and restaurants have had a year and a half to get used to the idea. "Workers in bars, pubs and restaurants – the men and women who work in these industries – should receive the same protection as all other workers," he said.

Heather Mackenzie, a former hospitality worker "who has suffered disease, pain and surgery from secondhand smoke" is circulating a letter slamming the hospitality industry.

"Hospitality workers deserve equal treatment and the same protection which all other workers receive," wrote Mackenize. "Since April 1998 a smoking ban has been in effect in every other B.C. workplace. The pubs have already had their ‘delay’ to get on with it and build a smoking room.

"This talk of a ‘ventilation solution’ is an absolute joke. Ventilation can’t possibly solve the problem for one simple reason… Smoke must go from the end of the burning cigarette and the lungs of the exhaling smoker to the ventilation system. On its way, workers are unavoidably exposed to second-hand smoke’s 40-plus carcinogens."

The first set of regulations were a success in Whistler, with close to 100 per cent compliance and no noticeable loss in revenues. Even after the regulations were repealed by the Supreme Court, many local establishments with patios have remained non-smoking by installing outdoor heaters.

Although it’s harder for Whistler’s underground bars to accommodate smokers, most of them managed to hold out for a few months before allowing smoking again, and one has remained that way.