Oklahoma lawmakers, spurred on by health departments and prevention coalitions, placed some major restrictions on tobacco use a few years ago. The rules put forth for restaurants wouldn't go into effect until March of 2006.

Many consumers complained at the time that it was too far away. But local restaurants are now viewing it in a different light: It's really just a few short months away, according to a story in Sunday's Transcript by business editor Randall Turk. Restaurateurs are busy preparing for the deadline. In the meantime, most new restaurants are opening smoke-free.

To allow smoking in restaurants after March 1, food establishments have to go through a litany of expensive structure changes. The smoking section must be completely cut off from the non-smoking areas with separate heating and cooling systems.

Restaurants must have "negative air pressure" to keep smoke from escaping when doors or windows are opened. There are a few exceptions to the new laws. Freestanding bars and taverns are exempt as are cigar bars, bingo halls, veterans centers, tobacco stores, businesses occupied only by smokers with little public access and private offices used only by smokers.

The state health department maintains that the benefits of going smoke free are both health-related and economic. A recent survey suggests more than twice as many Oklahomans avoid restaurants that permit smoking than stay away because they are smoke free.

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