August 2, 2007

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Publisher's Note: Ban needs state enforcement
By Jody Reese

As the deadline to ban smoking in restaurants and bars approaches it’s becoming clear that the governor and legislature pulled one over on all of us. Instead of clearly assigning enforcement responsibility to a state agency, such as the state police or liquor commission, the state decided it would figure it out along the way.

One of the ways it has decided that it has figured it out is to have town health departments enforce the no-smoking ban. That will be a nightmare for city and town governments that are already stretched thin as it is.

True, in most New Hampshire towns this law won’t be much of a problem. These little towns have one or two restaurants. But in southern New Hampshire it’s going to be an enforcement headache. Manchester, Nashua, Derry, Merrimack, Milford, Concord and Londonderry have hundreds of restaurants.

I’m sure that officials at the Statehouse are hoping that enforcement won’t be an issue.

In most cases that will be true. But there is a sizable contingent of bar and restaurant owners who oppose the ban. How will the state make sure these people follow the rules? I’m sure the state hopes customers will report on the offenders — hoping maybe even an employee will tattle.

That’s wishful thinking with this group. In those places, most customers, employees and owners smoke. Few have an incentive to report it. That wouldn’t be much of an issue, if other places weren’t being forced to ban smoking. But by passing a law and then only selectively enforcing it by solely relying on self-reporting, the state is creating a system where cheats will get the upper hand. Just like banning smoking was a boon to some restaurant and bar business a few years ago, letting customers smoke could now become a way to attract a larger customer base.

This is what is currently happening with video game poker machines. Most restaurants and bar owners follow the law by either not having the machines or not paying out winnings. However, there are some bars and restaurants that do pay out on the machines. This can be a very profitable business for a small bar or club. By not enforcing the ban on poker machines, the state is effectively giving the cheaters a leg up on the law-abiding competition.

We shouldn’t let the same thing happen with the smoking ban.

Perhaps the program to enforce the law could be funded and enforced at the state level through the fines levied against the smoking ban violators. Or perhaps the state could add some staff to the labor department to handle enforcement, since one of the main reasons for the ban was to not expose employees to secondhand smoke.

Whatever happens at the Statehouse, local governments should not be forced to enforce the ban. There are enough unfunded mandates as it is.