It’s Time for a Real Crackdown on Smoking in Pennsylvania

Nearly a decade after the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania "smoking bans" went into effect, people are still lighting up all over the place. Does a bill currently languishing in Harrisburg represent the best chance to end public smoking once and for all?

Photo: iStock/Robert Herhold

Photo: iStock/Robert Herhold

We like to talk about the cleaner, more progressive Philadelphia — hammocks on the waterfront, yoga in the park, open streets, bike sharing — but the truth is that you still can’t walk a block without catching a whiff — or worse — of cigarette smoke.

Eight years after Mayor Nutter proudly proclaimed victory against cigarettes and two years after his edict against smoking in city-owned parks went into effect, Philadelphia still has the highest adult smoking rate among the country’s ten biggest cities. One recent Monday, I took a stroll after lunch, encountering smoker after smoker huddling in the shadows of skyscrapers. I paid a visit to McGlinchey’s, that legendary dive bar on 15th Street, where I could only find one non-smoking customer in the mid-afternoon crowd of 20 or so. My lungs full of carcinogens, I went to Rittenhouse Square to purge them. During my brief visit, I counted no fewer than 20 smokers flouting the park smoking ban, no doubt tossing their spent butts to the ground and dirtying up our beautiful green space in the process.

Outside the city, the situation only gets worse. There are hundreds of smoking bars in the surrounding counties, and thousands of bars where you can still smoke throughout the state. Of the counties surrounding Philadelphia, Delaware County has the highest per capita rate of bars that allow smoking. Just take a walk around blue-collar Delco towns like Upper Darby and you’ll find no shortage of bars where you can smoke the night away.

See, the Pennsylvania ban is rife with exemptions. If you own a bar or restaurant that makes less than 20 percent of its revenue from food — or, at least, if that’s what you claim — smoking isn’t a problem. Private clubs like fire halls, VFWs and after-hours bars are exempted as well, as are cigar bars and cigar stores. The casinos are as smoky as you’d expect, and even nursing homes bizarrely fall outside the smoking ban. The list goes on.

And yet, if you travel outside of the commonwealth, you can find anti-smoking havens all around you. New Jersey prohibits smoking in all restaurants and bars, and Delaware won’t even let you smoke in the casinos. New York is German-efficient about its smoking regulations, and both Ohio and Maryland have smoking bans that make us look like we’re stuck in the 1950s. West Virginia is the only adjacent state without a statewide smoking ban — so congratulations, Pennsylvania: You’re incrementally better than West Virginia.

One person who wants to catch us up with the civilized world is Montgomery County-based state Senator Tom Murt, who last year introduced a bill that seeks to eliminate the state’s many exemptions. (Yes, you’d still be allowed to smoke at your home and inside your car.) Of course, Harrisburg being Harrisburg — I mean, we just got that budget through — Pennsylvania isn’t likely get less smoky in the immediate future. Murt’s bill was enthusiastically passed by the Health Committee last November, but no full vote has been scheduled, and there’s no telling what the legislation will look like once the powerful tobacco, hospitality, and casino lobbies have their way with it.

“We’re expecting a lengthy and complicated debate,” says Murt. “When we passed the original law in 2008, that was a major step forward, but there was always an understanding that this issue would be revisited in the future.”

It can’t come soon enough. Smoking remains one of our most dire public health threats, and if you pay taxes in Pennsylvania, you’re contributing to close to $2 billion in annual Medicaid dollars that go to smoking-related health care.

“It’s something we have to do,” says Murt. “It’s something that people want.”

He seems to be right about that, as I had a hard time finding even bar smokers with strong opinions against the law. By now, even the worst chain-smoker gets that smoking is a really bad idea, and it’s not like any reasonable person would try to assert that smoking is an unalienable right.

Some bar owners, of course, aren’t thrilled, worrying that their revenues will be extinguished along with the cigarettes.

“I’m going to lobby against the state measure,” says longtime McGlinchey’s owner Sheldon “Shelly” Sokol, himself a non-smoker. Sokol explains that back when the current ban went into effect, there was a time during which McGlinchey’s went non-smoking while the exemption was being processed, and sales slumped. “The kind of people we get as customers, they just like to smoke. Smoking and drinking go together.”

I asked Sokol how he felt about the proposed new ban on a purely human, and not financial, level.

“Well, it does get pretty smoky in here,” he admits. “But listen, everybody knows that smoking is not good for you, and if that’s what people want to do, so be it.”

Another bar owner I spoke with in smoke-filled Upper Darby felt similarly. “My clientele, they’ll just drink at home if they can’t sit here and smoke,” he insists. “I don’t see them hanging around out front.”

And then there are owners like Jack Prince, who wasn’t sure what would happen when his dive bar went non-smoking. Prince owns Bob & Barbara’s on South Street, just minutes from McGlinchey’s. When the smoking ban was first announced, Bob & Barbara’s was as much a smoking bar as McGlinchey’s, but he chose to skip the exemption. At first, his most diehard smokers complained, saying it would change the feel of the place, and fled for McGlinchey’s and other smoking bars. But then Bob & Barbara’s got even busier than it was before. Why? Prince says that all those people who used to stay away because Bob & Barabra’s was so smoky now could come and enjoy themselves without having to visit the dry-cleaner’s the next day.

“And now, if people want to smoke, they just take it to the sidewalk,” says Prince. “It’s funny, because you’ll have two people sitting at opposite ends of the bar, not talking, but then they go outside to smoke, and they make a new friend. I kinda like it.”

Similarly affected was the 1,300-member Willow Grove VFW. Halls like VFWs are typically some of the smokiest places you can find, so when the 2008 ban passed, most of the smoking members expected that the hall would get an exemption and remain their smoking mecca. But that wasn’t the case — post general manager Roger Myers had other ideas.

“We were remodeling the inside of our building with new drapes and paintings and things like that, and I thought that it was a good time to kick the smoking out,” explains Myers. “We definitely had some opposition, but now that we’re non-smoking and selling a lot more weddings and banquets and everybody sees the kind of money that we’re bringing in with that, everybody is cool. They’re more than happy to go outside.”

But even if the business at smoking bars does decline once they inevitably go non-smoking, so be it. It’s 2016, and it’s time for a change. In the meantime, smoke ’em if you got ’em. Or, maybe better, don’t.