The anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health alleges that Marriott is about to violate its no-smoking policy--which went into effect in September 2006--when its New York Marriott Marquis property hosts an event for Cigar Aficionado magazine next month.

There are two issues involved, says John Banzhaf, ASH’s executive director and chief council. “New York City law prohibits smoking anywhere in a hotel,” though it does include an exception that allows smoking in rooms that are “used exclusively for functions where the public is invited for the primary purpose of promoting and sampling tobacco products, and the service of food and drink is incidental to such purpose.” Banzhaf argues that the way the event is being promoted, food and drink are not incidental, but an integral part of the event.

The second issue, Banzhaf says, is Marriott’s own stated policy to be 100 percent smoke free, which, “includes all guest rooms, restaurants, lounges, meeting rooms, public space and employee work areas." (Click here for Marriott’s press release announcing the policy.) “Once a corporation makes a public promise, they’re bound by it unless they publicly announce that they’re changing it,” he says, citing a recent case where McDonald's paid an $8 million settlement for not publicizing a delay in implementing its publicly announced promise to remove trans fat from its fare.

ASH last week sent a letter to Marriott putting the chain on “notice of possible legal actions,” says Banzhaf. “We’re going to wait and see their response to our letters. All you need is one nonsmoker who said I switched to Marriott because of their no-smoking policy, [and] you have a beautiful class action suit.”

Kathleen Duffy, director of public relations/NYC Marriott Hotels, says that while it is true that Marriott International announced last year that its hotels in North America would be smoke-free, M. Shanken Communications, which publishes Cigar Aficionado, has been holding its Big Smoke event at the Marriott Marquis for 10 years, and Marriott has a contractual obligation to hold the November 20 event. “This isn’t something we decided to book just this year,” she says. “And we are not proactively seeking any future business like this from any company, but right now due to a contractual obligation we are hosting this particular event for one night.” Duffy adds that the hotel plans to “do major commercial cleaning, filtering, and venting” of the Marquis ballroom, where the Big Smoke will be held.

She also says, “I can confirm that we have a contract [for the Big Smoke event] for this year and at least next year at the Marriott Marquis.”

“I certainly understand the perspective of advocates for not smoking. I try to explain that we are not ignoring the fact that our company announced we would be smoke-free. This is a once-a-year event we are contractually obligated to hold for a long-term client,” says Duffy. She adds that the chain’s attorneys have received the ASH letter and are preparing a response.

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