Forum held tonight, community to discuss smoking policies

Garrick Duncan and Arthur Haire browse their menus at Texas Roadhouse, a pack of cigarettes close by. They plan to smoke, they said, during their meal. Surrounding them are couples and families, a cloud of smoke swirling around their heads as well.

A few feet away, separated by a low partition, sits retired school teacher Pat LaRue. She is dining out with her grandson and his two friends. Technically, she is in the non-smoking section, though she said she questions its effectiveness.

"It's a farce," she said. "For me, when I come to a restaurant with these darling children, I want to be in a part where there's no smoking."

Cigarette smoke, wafting throughout many of Muncie's restaurants, has become the focus of a nine-member task force, assigned by the Delaware County commissioners to gauge public opinion on limiting or eventually banning cigarettes in restaurants.

The committee's forum, and the public's chance to voice its opinions, will be tonight at 7 in Muncie City Hall. Key to the discussion will be a one-page survey the task force will have available

The survey offers five options, each possibly having an effect on the future of smoking. The options range from the mild -- letting restaurants that currently allow smoking to continue doing so -- to the more extreme -- banning smoking in restaurants within five years.

In between lies a series of less-polarized options. One would designate smoking hours when children could not be present. Another would require smoking areas in current restaurants be walled off with different ventilation systems within 10 years.

Public input could also create more options, said Judith Roepke, retired Ball State professor and task force chairwoman.

"It's public input into the process," she said. "It is to ensure greater input from the whole community.

"We get a lot of opinion, believe me. It's good. It makes it fun."

Nothing definitive has been decided, and according to the commissioners' office, there is no timeline.

This would be the second round for Delaware County, which tried to pass an ordinance last year affecting smokers. The ordinance failed, though, because it has flaws, Roepke said.

This time, according to Roepke, the task force is trying to get more public opinion. The restaurants' interests are already represented. Six of the members own or manage a restaurant or tavern, and one has had personal experience with smoking bans. Scott Wise, the owner of Scotty's Brewhouse, serves on the committee and owns a restaurant in Bloomington, where smoking is not allowed in restaurants.

In order for his Bloomington patrons to smoke, Wise closes down the restaurant and opens up the bars to only those 21 or over.

"I chose the business to be in, and I know smoking and bars go hand in hand," he said.

Wise did, however, cite advantages to a smoke-free environment, and he said the lack of smoke could possibly attract customers that would not come otherwise.

Still, Wise, a non-smoker, said he questions the need for government intervention when businessmen should be able to make the decisions themselves.

Currently, Delaware County's restrictions on smokers in restaurants is almost non-existent, the commissioner's office said. The only requirement is that restaurants post a sign declaring the building a non-smoking establishment, though most restaurant managers in Muncie permit the habit, Roepke said.

Most managers would prefer it that way, according to Lou Coulter, the co-chairman of the task force and owner of the Red Dog Saloon, 1600 W. 23rd St., Coulter contacted all the local restaurant managers in Muncie while the initial ordinance was being debated. None of them approved of it. Coulter has not spoken to any managers this time.

Fort Wayne has already implemented a policy requiring all smoking areas in restaurants be in separate rooms. Restaurant owners in Fort Wayne took the city to court, according to N. Eshcoff, an employee in the city clerk's office, where the court upheld the ordinance, which took effect in January 1999.

An economist at the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis studied the ramifications of the ordinance. The study, funded by the organization Smokefree Indiana and the Centers for Disease Control, concluded the ban had no impact on restaurant sales.//2++â-ÑH>>smoking ordinanceDNEditorial//2SORTZ+â-ä2AUDT

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