HONOLULU – There's a revolt going on in Hawaii as some bar owners openly defy the state's new anti-smoking law, one of America's toughest, by letting their customers light up.
So far, they're getting away with it, although a recent protest smoke-in brought police to one downtown bar.
"We're being rebellious. Look at the Boston Tea Party. Look at Prohibition. They rebelled and they won," said Fred Remington, vice president of the company that runs O'Toole's Irish Pub.
Hawaii is one of 16 states that have banned smoking in all public places. Its law, which took effect in November, even covers open malls and popular outdoor dining areas, and it doesn't allow bars or offices to set aside rooms for smokers. Penalties start at $100 and increase up to $500 after the third offense. Bars could lose liquor licenses and customers could be fined $50.
Backers said the law was needed to protect the health of employees in bars and restaurants who can't avoid inhaling secondhand smoke, but bar owners complain that it is ruining their business.
Lance Gomes, owner of Pigskins Sports Bar, said the ban cost him nearly half of his customers, although business has rebounded since he decided to disobey the law.
Honolulu police have not issued any citations against defiant smokers, said spokeswoman Michelle Yu. The law requires a member of the public to make a report before an officer will investigate, and then it's up to the offer how to handle the violation.
"What we're hoping for is the public's cooperation," Yu said.
During a recent protest by angry bar owners at O'Toole's, several dozen people crowded the pub to light up cigars and cigarettes, but after police arrived everyone put out their smokes.
Remington helped rally the 93-member Hawaii Bar Owners Association, which filed a lawsuit in January against the state in a bid to overturn the law. The legal action claims the government has violated their private property rights.
Similar lawsuits have been brought in other states but not one has succeeded, said Deborah Zysman, director of the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawaii.
"We're pretty confident that our law will stand," she said. "We have always been pretty certain that it's a relatively small number of establishments that are acting as scofflaws. The overwhelming majority of restaurants and businesses are following the rules."
Bartender Brenda Kennedy-Rogers, who works at Cha Cha Cha in Waikiki, argues that people expect to be able to smoke in a pub.
"If I'm drinking, I want to be smoking," Kennedy-Rogers said as she took a drag outside the Aloha Tower Marketplace. "They keep taking more and more of our rights away."