The Maine law banning smoking in restaurants has been in effect for more than two months. The vast majority of restaurant owners and smokers have complied — some willingly, some grumpily — but complied. An even vaster majority, the 78 percent of adult Mainers who do not smoke, are breathing easier.
Yet pockets of resistance remain. Lawmakers are under some pressure to rescind the law and there is persistent talk of a petition drive to initiate a citizen referendum. And now, a group of Biddeford-area restaurateurs think they’ve found a loophole. They’ve declared their restaurants to be not places of public accommodation but private clubs. They believe that by having patrons pay a dollar and sign in as members, they are exempt from the law. They frame their argument as one of freedom of choice and the constitutionally protected pursuit of happiness.
They are wrong on all counts. Above all, they are wrong in the basic premise of their argument. This law was not enacted to save diners the trouble of having to decide whether to sit in the smoking or non-smoking section. This law is fundamentally a worker-protection law.
More than 44,000 Mainers work in restaurants. If the statewide statistics apply, more than 34,000 do not smoke and are entitled to a work environment that does not require them to inhale someone else’s smoke. The view that a waiter, hostess or chef who does not want to include disease and early death in the job description should just get another job is too offensive to be taken seriously. Factory and office workers are protected from hazardous conditions; restaurant workers deserve no less.
Now there is new evidence that the hazards of secondhand smoke are even greater than previously believed. A study published this week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests that non-smoking women who live in smoking households are as much as six times more likely to develop lung cancer as those who do not.
The study conducted by the City of Hope National Medical Center in Los Angeles was small in scope — it was based upon the examination of 106 Missouri women, mostly rural housewives, who had never smoked but who had developed lung cancer. The study must be expanded to be conclusive, but the evidence is mounting that non-smokers exposed to unfiltered secondhand smoke are at greater risk for lung cancer than smokers, who at least have the benefit of a filter.
The private club ruse will not withstand the legal challenge being prepared by the Attorney General’s Office. The statute regarding the establishment of private clubs requires far more than a dollar and a signature — there must be regular meetings, officers, bylaws and a stated purpose for the club. The collective liability of the “smoking club” rank-and-file aside, those who might be persuaded to join should ask themselves if they really want to be card-carrying members of an organization whose stated purpose is to ruin the health of somebody just trying to earn a living.