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Fears that restaurants, bars and casinos will lose smokers' business were dismissed in favour of health concerns yesterday as Ontario passed what it boasts is the "most aggressive anti-tobacco legislation in North America."

The provincial legislature voted 71 to 6 in passing the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, a blanket ban on smoking in all indoor public places and workplaces that will take effect across the province starting in June, 2006.

The law also gives Ontario retailers until June of 2008 to get rid of displays known as "power walls," removing cigarettes from the sight of minors.

"I'm very proud of this legislation," Premier Dalton McGuinty told reporters. "We're taking a strong stand against tobacco, and by so doing, standing up for the health of Ontarians."

Mr. McGuinty said tobacco is the No. 1 cause of preventable illness in the province, killing 16,000 Ontarians a year and costing the provincial economy $2.7-billion annually in lost productivity.

"It costs the health-care system alone $1.6-billion," he said.

Health Minister George Smitherman defended the decision to include Legion halls in the ban, despite pleas by seniors' groups to grant an exemption to Canada's war veterans.

"Eighty per cent of Ontario's adults don't smoke, and that applies to those that fought in wars," he said. "Everyone deserves an equal right to be able to enjoy their indoor space without harmful effect."

Niagara-area Conservative Tim Hudak, one of six Tories who voted against the bill, warned the ban would hurt restaurants, bars and casinos. "I have no doubt that it's going to impact on the border casinos, on charity gaming and the hospitality sector," he said. "I don't think this government has accounted for the loss in money at the casinos as a result of this bill."

The Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association said even though the hospitality industry generates $18-billion a year in economic activity, it can't get the government to listen to concerns about potential drops in revenues caused by the smoking ban.

"We're not surprised, we're frustrated," association president Terry Mundell said in an interview.

"The men and women who work hard in the hospitality sector in Ontario seem to, at this point in time, not have this government paying any attention to us and we find that very, very frustrating."

The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association complained the law would render expensive designated-smoking rooms worthless and said it would deal "a crippling blow" to small businesses.

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