by Jonathan T. Howe, esq. | January 01, 2007

The push to eliminate smoking in public places is hardly new, but it’s gaining steam rapidly. Major hotel chains like Westin and Marriott are now totally smoke-free, at least in the United States, and almost every day new cities join the list that prohibit the practice.

Most office buildings and many restaurants and other public venues also are smoke-free, some willingly and others not. This now includes both public as well as private areas of a property. Employers are even given the right to fire smokers, even if they only smoke at home and not at the office.

In my hometown of Chicago, lighting up is banned in any public facility. While there are limited exceptions for neighborhood bars and taverns, any major restaurant, hotel or office building cannot allow smoking. Building owners have empowered their cleaning staffs to inform management if they suspect a tenant has violated the ban. At O’Hare International Airport, all special smoking facilities in airline clubs have closed. You cannot even smoke outside within 15 feet of a doorway.

Meetings effect

Still, many attendees continue to enjoy the opportunity to smoke, particularly international delegates. What are the legal implications that flow from the burgeoning prohibitions? While some smokers insist their right to light up has been violated by such ordinances and statutes (and indeed, cigarette smoking in principle remains a legal activity), for the most part hotels and other facilities do have a greater right to establish rules of conduct within their walls, including the banning of smoking.

Many meeting professionals make it a point to include in their contracts a clearly defined limitation on smoking or at least a designation as to where smoking is allowed. As this trend continues, it is more than likely that within the United States, the ability to light up will become even more severely limited by both public and private facilities.

If your group does include smokers, determine with the venue where lighting up might be allowed and how you can accommodate your attendees. If smoking will not be allowed anywhere, let your attendees know in advance the rules and the consequences. For instance, Marriott International imposes a surcharge of up to $300 for the violation of its nonsmoking ban. The amount is a “recovery fee” to address the cost of cleaning and refreshing the room, plus revenue lost by taking the room out of service for the process. The fee at Westin Hotels and Resorts, part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, is $200.

Not your problem

When someone does smoke in a nonsmoking hotel room, a dispute might arise between the checkout desk and the guest over the surcharge. Some will say they didn’t smoke, claiming it was the previous guest. Again, it’s important to let attendees know the rules and the cost of a violation. Beyond that, the incident should not involve the meeting host.

To be sure the organization is not on the hook for the smoker, review your hotel contract carefully. Some agreements place the onus on the sponsor for “damage” done to a sleeping room. Such clauses should be deleted during negotiations.

Attendee rights

Another issue that has arisen is whether a change in a venue’s smoking policy would allow a group to cancel because of a breach of contract, since the group signed when the property allowed smoking. There is no breach, however, unless the right of the attendees to smoke was set forth or implied in the contract. Only then would there be any opportunity for the planner to cancel without penalty.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.,is a senior partner in the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at