Smoking ban snuffs puffs - No more stealing drags at entrances

By Cody Ellerd

The relatively few smokers on Mercer Island are used to taking their habit outside. Ever since the Roanoke Inn went smoke-free in July and Ana's Mexican Restaurant closed in the fall, the last bastions of public indoor puffing have been snuffed out. But now with the new 25-foot rule that will take effect on Thursday, Dec. 8, businesses and patrons alike are learning what it will mean for smokers to keep their distance.

Beginning tomorrow, ashtrays will quietly disappear from outside some Mercer Island buildings and ``no smoking'' signs will go up in their place. Initiative 901 prohibits smoking inside all bars and restaurants and within 25 feet of doors, windows and air vents of any public place.

Business owners appreciative of Islanders' respectful observance of anti-smoking rules that have long been in place here foresee little challenge from either surly patrons or overzealous law enforcement.

``I don't think it's going to affect our customers too much,'' said Nicole McCammon, assistant manager of The Islander restaurant. Most people who ask to light up at the downtown restaurant's bar are construction workers getting off their shifts. They are are happy to comply when directed to the door, McCammon said.

More of an impact will be felt, she thinks, by The Islander employees who like to take smoke breaks outside, including herself and chef Jamie Butler. Four or five times a day, Butler said, he perches some distance away on a railing and smokes a cigarette. But when it's raining, he stays under the building's overhang about 2 feet from the door. He won't be able to do that anymore.

``The biggest change you're going to see at The Islander is the ashtray will go,'' Butler said. ``And I'm happy to see it. The employees are clean, but it's a mess out here.''

Few signs of nicotine addiction are evident around the corner at the Island Corporate Center. Within 25 feet of the entrance, there isn't an ashtray or butt to be found. One lone smoker tracked down standing by the ashtray near the rear garage said that the heavy presence of Pacific Healthcare of Washington in the building has long dictated a low tolerance for smoking on the premises.

``They set the standard,'' said the smoker, who declined to be named. ``So the building has always been in compliance'' with the new law before it even passed on the November ballot.

Mercer Island city officials said that first-time violators of the statewide statute are subject to a warning, with fines up to $100 for repeated offenses. The city will post required signs on public buildings, including City Hall and Parks & Recreation property, said City Attorney Londi Lindell. Meanwhile, the police department is training officers to get up to speed on enforcement.

``We will enforce it because obviously it's a law,'' said Mercer Island Public Safety Director Ron Elsoe. ``But it will be prioritized with other calls for service.''

A smoking violation, which also includes defacing the city's ``no-smoking'' signs, is considered an offense on the level of a parking infraction, and the police don't plan any special patrols.

Posting notices and keeping smokers away from the doors of bars and other private businesses will ultimately be up to property owners, Lindell said.

``I think it will have more impact on small businesses,'' she said.

Even though the Roanoke shuffled its smoking customers out onto the porch several months ago, it still sought to make them comfortable with ashtrays on the outdoor tables warmed by heat lamps. But, as at The Islander, that green signal to light up is changing to red.

``We will very nicely ask them to step off the porch,'' said Roanoke owner Dorothy Reeck. ``We're not going to let it happen and look the other way.''

Most of the Roanoke's loyal customers, smoke lovers and haters alike, supported Reeck when she made the voluntary switch in July to no smoking inside in part to preserve the aging landmark tavern. The response ever since has been positive. But a few were quite angry, swearing to never come back. She chuckles at their antics, but is still happy to not have to shoulder all the blame anymore.

``I'm happy the law is going into effect so that I'm not the Big Bad Wolf,'' she said.

One man enjoying Irish coffee and cigarettes on the heated porch on a recent chilly evening isn't angry at the proprietor, but he is upset.

``Where does the state get off dictating a business owner's property rights?'' Bill Cole of Bellevue said. ``They've taken away all choice.''

``First smoking, then abortion,'' chimed in his friend, Sven Bitner of Mercer Island.

He was half joking, but the men share a genuine concern that the government is exercising too much control over people's lives and that voters are too blinded to stop it.

Still, Bitner, for one, plans to take the law as the incentive he needs to finally kick the habit. And neither smoker plans to stop patronizing any favorite establishments.

Reeck said that even the irate customers who pledged to stay as far from the Roanoke as possible because of the smoking ban are back well within 25 feet because they succumbed to a different addiction.

``They're back,'' she said, ``because they love our fish and chips.''

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