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Hotel industry eyes extended smoking bans

First came workplaces, then bars and restaurants.  Now the ban on smoking is extending to hotels. By John W. Schoen
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Do you like to light up in your hotel room? Better not stay at a Westin.Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images file
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First came workplaces, then bars and restaurants. Now the ban on smoking is extending to hotels, as more guests ask for rooms that are free of smoking residue.

If the upcoming smoking ban by the upscale Westin hotel chain succeeds, more hotels are likely to follow suit. But some smokers' rights advocates say the bans will only go so far. As long as people who smoke travel, they’ll be looking for a room where they can relax and light up.

Completely smoke-free hotels aren’t new, but the move by Starwood Hotel’s Westin chain — eliminating smoking in all rooms and public places in all 77 of its hotels in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean — is the widest such ban to date. When the restriction takes effect Jan. 1, smoking will be allowed only in designated outdoor areas. The company said it will tack on a $200 charge to anyone caught violating the policy.

"It's really a cleaning fee," said Westin senior vice president Sue Brush. To go smoke-free, the company is converting 2,400 formerly smoking rooms with an extensive cleaning. "Once you smoke in there, you've violated that entire environment and we have to clean it all over again."

Since California became the first state to outlaw smoking in workplaces over a decade ago, smoking bans have spread like the smell of a cheap cigar. Dozens of states and municipalities have followed suit, extending the bans to restaurants and bars. More than a third of the U.S. population is covered by smoking bans where they work or dine, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, which has been lobbying for smoking bans for nearly 30 years.

Given the impact of smoking on non-smoking guests and workers, the move to ban smoking in hotels is a logical next step, according to Cynthia Hallett, executive director of non-smokers' group.

“The market demand for smoke-free rooms is skyrocketing — both in terms of patron satisfaction and employees’ health,” she said.

Westin said it made the decision based on guest surveys showing that 92 percent asked for non-smoking rooms and 80 percent said they prefer keeping dining and other common areas smoke-free. The company acknowledged that it may lose some business at the outset but said it expects to make it up with new customers who prefer the policy.

Other hotel chains are watching Westin’s move closely.A spokesman for rival Marriott International Inc., John Wolf, said several Marriott hotels and 85 percent of the chain's rooms are smoke-free, but there are no plans to go smoke-free nationwide.

As the number of smokers has declined over the years, hotels have been cutting back on the number of rooms set aside for smokers, according to a 2003 study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers.  Some hotels have chosen to eliminate those smoking rooms to cater to the majority of their guests who don’t smoke.

“So often you go to a place and the non-smoking rooms are all taken or the smoking rooms and the non-smoking rooms are mixed up and the smoke spreads,” said Jacque Petterson of San Antonio, Texas, who maintains a Web site listing smoke-free hotels. “You're giving people a place to go without having to worry.”

But smokers' rights groups say hotels like Westin that fail to provide rooms for smokers will lose business in the long run.

“They’re making a big mistake,” said Audrey Silk, a smokers’ rights advocate in New York. “They’re in the accommodation business, and it’s not like smokers are about to spend their vacation being unable to relax — which is what you do on a vacation.”

It’s also not clear what impact a widening of hotel smoking bans would have on visitors from those overseas countries where smoking remains more popular than in the United States. Though some countries, including New Zealand, Ireland and Italy, have moved to ban smoking in some public places, smoking bans are not as widespread overseas.

And though smoking rights advocates like Silk disagree with hotels that bar customers from smoking, they favor voluntary bans over government-imposed restrictions.

“We’ve always maintained that it’s a matter of private property rights,” she said. “It’s not up to the smoker or non-smoker to decide how an owner should run his business and accommodate his customers.”