Going out for dinner tonight? Unless you want a lungful of smoke, take a table away from the door.
A study of Wellington eateries has found many patrons sitting inside restaurants are nearly as likely to be exposed to second-hand smoke as those sitting out with the smokers.
It comes as the Ministry of Health changes the way it calculates "outdoor" smoking areas, which could leave some bars and restaurants on the wrong side of the law.
Authors of the University of Otago study secretly monitored the air quality of eight Wellington restaurants with outdoor smoking areas over two months.
The results suggested tobacco smoke was drifting from outside smoking areas inside, undermining the decade-long ban on indoor smoking.
Inside the restaurants, near the entrance to the smoking areas, the level of harmful smoke was nearly as high as outside, although it dissipated as it wafted further indoors, the study, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, says.
Restaurants with more enclosed smoking areas and open doors were, unsurprisingly, more likely to have smoke inside.
Anti-smoking groups say the study supports their push to ban all smoking at restaurants, cafes and bars, whether inside or out.
But restaurateurs are not convinced, arguing that smoke is being kept outside and few customers complain about it drifting in.
Restaurant Association president Mike Egan, who owns several Wellington eateries, said he was not aware of any problems. "I'm quite surprised to hear that. It is disappointing, no-one likes smoke inside."
He said some places overseas, including Queensland, banned smoking anywhere near entrances, but he did not believe that was needed in New Zealand.
"People are smoking less and less. I think it will just fizzle out by itself."
Ancestral, in Courtenay Place, is one of many restaurants with a partially covered smoking area. General manager Gary Armstrong said there was a clear separation between the smoking area and his restaurant, and about $500,000 had been spent on the outdoor smoking area, which was carefully designed to meet the legal requirements.
"I can understand the point people are making about second-hand smoke, but the business is complying with the law."
He said customers had never complained about smoke drifting inside.
In the nearly 10 years since smoking inside was banned, only 13 businesses have been prosecuted for flouting the rules. Only one in Wellington is known to have been pursued, with Cuba St cafe Fidel's fined $600 in 2007 for allowing smoking in an enclosed area.
However, that could change. The ministry is altering the way it assesses "outdoor" smoking areas, after a court ruled last year that its calculations were not lawful.
It came after the Cancer Society and Problem Gambling Foundation objected to the ministry approving a SkyCity casino smoking area that they considered "clearly indoors".
Kristen Foley, leader of Regional Public Health's tobacco and alcohol team, said there were probably some well-enclosed outdoor smoking areas at bars and restaurants in Wellington that were illegal.
"But that has yet to be tested. We are back to the drawing board really."
- The Dominion Post
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