A Change In The Air

February 24, 1994|By Joel Obermayer | Joel Obermayer,Sun Staff Writer

A Big Mac and fries, please, but hold the tobacco.

That was the order of the day at McDonald's yesterday when it announced a ban on smoking at all 1,400 company-owned restaurants nationwide. Including franchised restaurants that ban smoking, about a third of McDonald's 9,100 restaurants now are smoke-free.

In the McDonald's Baltimore region, which includes parts of central Pennsylvania and the Eastern Shore, 33 of 182 McDonald's are company-owned, said marketing supervisor Chuck Tildon.

Many local fast-food customers, particularly those with children, seemed pleased with the change.

"I just think that to enjoy a meal and not have to worry about smoke is important," said Emilie Sadowsky, 43, who was watching David, 7, and Becky, 15, and eating ice cream at the McDonald's on Benson Drive in Columbia yesterday afternoon.

Elaine Whalen, 40, added that having a separate smoking section was not enough. "The kids still had to walk through the smoke to go to the bathroom," she said.

In an industry where companies often mimic one another's marketing strategies faster than you can say "value menu," spokesmen for both Burger King and Wendy's said they did not expect to copy the move.

Part of their reluctance may be because it is not yet clear whether keeping smoke out will be good for business.

A spokesman for the tobacco industry, for one, says McDonald's is making a big mistake. "It's a potentially disastrous business decision," said Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, a lobbying group. Mr. Lauria said a 1992 study by Simmons Research showed that 31 percent of McDonald's customers smoke. "That's a lot of people that will no longer be welcome at McDonald's."

But Terri Capatosto, a spokeswoman for McDonald's, said she believes the ban will have no effect on sales. "The average visit to McDonald's is about 20 minutes, so we really don't expect any change," she said.

The policy comes just as the movement to stop smoking in public places is gaining steam. Yesterday, the National Council of Chain Restaurants endorsed legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, that would ban jTC smoking in most commercial buildings.

The Maryland House of Delegates also will discuss banning smoking in restaurants and cafeterias at a hearing on March 8.

And last week, Texas Attorney General Dan Morales filed lawsuits against McDonald's, Grand Metropolitan PLC.'s Burger King Corp., Pepsico Inc.'s KFC and Taco Bell chains and Long John Silver's Inc., alleging that they are jeopardizing the health of children by allowing smoking in their restaurants. McDonald's said the lawsuit had nothing to do with the decision to ban smoking in its restaurants.

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