Pennsylvania should toughen its smoking ban by eliminating exemptions that have allowed smokers to continue lighting up at thousands of establishments across the state.
The loophole in the state's 2008 Clean Indoor Air Act was the political price for securing state lawmakers' initial approval of a generally strong smoke-free law that makes it illegal to puff in 95 percent of all workplaces and public areas.
But it's time to revisit that policy in the interest of protecting the health of workers in the bars and clubs where smoking is still allowed. These businesses have had a grace period, and it should be easier for them to make the transition, now that smoke-free is widely accepted across the state.
The exemption allows smoking in small bars where food accounts for less than 20 percent of sales and for bar-restaurants that meet certain structural requirements.
So far, the state has exempted 2,252 businesses, including 239 in Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware Counties. Nearly 1,000 more also want exemptions, and will likely get them because the state has yet to turn down any requests.
The law took effect in September, after years of debate. Besides restaurants and bars, it prohibits smoking in most public places, such as taxis, schools and government buildings. New Jersey and Delaware have stricter bans, and Pennsylvania should follow suit.
The state ban does not include Philadelphia, which enacted its own law in 2006. The city's law allows smoking at private clubs and bars where food accounts for no more than 10 percent of sales.
Small neighborhood taverns given the exemption believe a smoke-free environment would hurt business. They cater to a loyal clientele that wants to light up while eating and drinking.
But what about their employees who are exposed to the well-documented dangers of secondhand smoke? They should be able to breathe clean air at work.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania casino owners want to expand their smoking sections beyond the minimum 25 percent now allowed.
That would be a major step backward for the state. Instead of relaxing the law, the state should eliminate the exemptions and protect the public and employees.
State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery, Bucks) has the right idea in proposing legislation closing the loopholes allowing smoking at casinos, bars and private clubs.
The bill would eliminate those exceptions, ban smoking at outdoor cafes, and allow all municipalities to pass even tougher bans.
The Pennsylvania Tavern Association, which represents 1,500 mom-and-pop bars, opposes the bill and wants more exemptions. The group wants the government to stop treading on adult behavior.
But a new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked a smoking ban in Pueblo, Colo., to a 41 percent drop in heart-attack hospitalizations there. At least eight earlier studies found similar results.
Pennsylvania needs consistent smoke-free rules, and that means snuffing out exemptions to give everyone a breath of clean air.