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Smoking to be front and center in Oklahoma Legislature

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Restaurant owner Renee Khosravani says some of her loyal customers come to Beverly's Pancake Corner because they enjoy the food and friendly atmosphere, but she concedes others come back because they know smokers are welcome here.

Smoking is allowed throughout the diner, unlike some other Oklahoma restaurants that went smoke-free last year after the Oklahoma Health Board approved rules restricting smoking in public places. Enforcement of the rules was later blocked by a judge, and the issue of public smoking will be front and center before the Oklahoma Legislature in the session that begins Monday.

Beverly's, known for its ``Chicken in the Rough'' fried chicken, is filled with the smell of sizzling bacon, hamburgers and sausage, and there is also a hint of cigarette smoke.

``I always joke around with my customers and say if I get lung cancer, I'm going to sue them,'' said Khosravani, a nonsmoker.

She fears her business would suffer financially if she made the restaurant smoke-free.

The rules approved by the health board last year and signed by then-Gov. Frank Keating say restaurants that seat 50 people or more must enclose and separately ventilate their nonsmoking sections. Restaurants can also choose to go smoke-free or allow smoking throughout the establishment, as is the case at Beverly's.

The restaurant is long and narrow and does not lend itself to a separate room for smokers, but Khosravani does not like smoke and is considering spending $45,000 on ventilators that would help clean the air.

David Marchese, a construction contractor and a smoker, would come back to Beverly's even if the restaurant prohibited smoking.

``I'd say 60 percent of smokers don't really care about the ban, most are trying to quit anyway,'' he said as he puffed a cigarette at the restaurant's counter. ``It's only the smokers that are going to smoke until they die that are mad about it.''

Barbara Briseno, a waitress at the restaurant, is a smoker and doesn't mind working in an environment where smoking is allowed, but she also is a frequent customer of a restaurant that doesn't allow smoking.

``It's each to his own,'' she said. ``People should respect each other.''

When the legislative session begins in February, the ban on smoking in public places _ now in legal limbo _ will be one of many tobacco-related measures lawmakers will have to consider.

A Creek County judge issued a restraining order postponing enforcement of the health board's rules after two businesses in Sapulpa said the board exceeded its powers in drawing up the restrictions.

It will be up to the Oklahoma Legislature to draw up its own restrictions _ a so-called clean indoor air act _ or place the matter before voters. Also before the legislature will be a proposal to increase the excise tax on cigarettes by up to $1.

``Frankly, we're giving lawmakers a menu of options,'' said state Health Commissioner Dr. Leslie Beitsch. ``Perhaps they'll find some of them attractive, like passing a clean indoor air act, and if they don't want to be that bold they have the option of letting voters decide.''

Lawmakers and health care lobbyists are getting ready for a tough session as they prepare to take on strong tobacco interests in a state where smokers smoke nearly a third more cigarettes than the national average.

``I think we have an uphill battle,'' said Victoria Rankin, a lobbyist for the Oklahoma Nurses Association and other public health organizations. ``The debate is certainly going to be lopsided. Most of the health care interests don't have a lot of money to throw around.''

Integris Health, one of the state's largest health care providers, recently ran ads in newspapers across the state criticizing the ``state Capitol smoke blower,'' whose job it is to ``keep cigarette taxes low and tobacco volume high.''

Integris officials say they have been disappointed that some elected and appointed leaders haven't recognized the danger smoking represents.

Oklahoma smokers, about 23 percent of the population, each smoke an average of 109 packs a year. That's about 30 percent more than the national average of 84 packs per smoker per year.

David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, said his company will work at the grass-roots level to oppose efforts to restrict smoking.

``We'll work with the restaurant associations, because basically what this boils down to is government limiting business owners, when they're the best ones to decide what's best for business,'' Howard said. ``It should be their right, and they are best able to decide what their customers would prefer.''
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