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No-smoke penalty turns trip into a nightmare

Sunday, December 10, 2000
By EILEEN OGINTZ

The ship was clear about its "zero tolerance" policy: Not only could a passenger caught smoking be fined $250, but they could be forced to leave the ship, disembarked in a foreign country for merely possessing "smoking materials." Every week, passengers violate the no-smoking policy and must pay their way home -- four to six people a month, Carnival officials say. No exceptions are made.

Some rules are not meant to be bent -- even on vacation.

Our family learned that the hard way. But this was one vacation disaster that brought an unexpected dividend along with the ruin of a long-anticipated multigenerational holiday trip: We showed the kids how important it is to close ranks as a family, especially away from home.

Family vacations, after all, are supposed to be about strengthening those all-important bonds. We just never figured on that happening the way it did. Like many widely scattered families, we'd booked a Thanksgiving shipboard reunion with 30 relatives (more about that in an upcoming column) aboard Carnival Cruise Lines' Paradise.

That the Paradise is a completely smoke-free ship -- the only one afloat -- appealed to our group. The cigar smokers among us said they would forgo their pleasure to make the trip more comfortable for the eight seniors, some in poor health. The ship was clear about its "zero tolerance" policy: Not only could a passenger caught smoking be fined $250, but they could be forced to leave the ship, disembarked in a foreign country for merely possessing "smoking materials."

In fact, in our case, my 16-year-old son Matt Yemma was held liable simply because he was sharing a cabin with an older cousin, Chris Yemma, who Carnival officials discovered had a pack of cigarettes in his suitcase. No one was caught smoking.

Every week, we learned, passengers violate the no-smoking policy and must pay their way home -- four to six people a month, Carnival officials say. No exceptions are made. Earlier that week, another passenger had been disembarked with her teenage son. Five passengers along with 15 of their friends and relatives were left in St. Thomas another week. "In order to effectively ensure that the integrity of the smoke-free environment is maintained, the policies must be strict and the penalties severe," explains Carnival Cruise Lines President Bob Dickinson.

Most ships now have smoke-free dining rooms and other smoke-free areas, as do hotels and restaurants.

Renaissance Cruises, for example, tout smoke-free ships but still allow the crew to smoke in a certain ventilated lounge. "And we would never throw anyone off the ship," said spokesman Brad Ball.

But only Carnival has opted to take such a hard line. "If we don't treat every violator in exactly the same way," Dickinson said, "the concept would be impossible to effectively manage."

Carnival Paradise passengers -- even the kids -- must sign a contract promising to abide by the no-smoking policy. Security guards X-ray bags and confiscate cigarettes and cigars when passengers return to the ship after visiting ports. There are reminder signs everywhere.

That's likely because the smoke-free ship has proved such an effective marketing tool, the reason why many passengers choose the ship. "I'm allergic to smoke," said Sylvia Mueth, who was traveling with her extended family from Illinois. "We didn't want the kids to be around smoke," added Lisa Della-Penna, a North Carolinian who was traveling with her husband and two children.

But even those passengers who laud the policy, and cruise experts, are surprised by the policy's severity. "It's a bit much to fine you $250 and make you leave for having a pack of cigarettes. We're not talking about an illegal substance," said Anne Campbell, editor of the leading online cruise magazine, cruisemates.com. "If you pick the Paradise, make sure everyone -- especially the teens -- understands the consequences," she warned.

Our nightmare started as we were finishing Thanksgiving dinner -- and celebrating two wedding anniversaries -- four days into our Caribbean cruise. A room steward apparently had reported finding matches in the boys' cabin. None were struck: I'd innocently given the boys the matchbook so they'd have the address of a restaurant where we had planned to meet the day before in port.

Ship personnel, we learned later, are constantly on the lookout for those violating the rules. "We have a secret association all over the ship," said Miles Willis, the ship's hotel director. "People have to realize we take this very seriously." Carnival officials denied that stewards are paid a bounty for turning in passengers though they are "encouraged to report any apparent violations," a Carnival spokesman said.

That Thanksgiving evening, ship security officers wouldn't let the boys into their cabin after dinner. They said a smoke detector had gone off, though no one was in the cabin. Matt and Chris were ordered to get their parents so the cabin could be searched for tobacco. There was no scent of smoke, all agreed, but the officials quickly zeroed in on the sole pack of cigarettes in my nephew's suitcase, seeming to know exactly where to search.

Chris and Matt were gratified we pleaded their case to the ship officials, but there would be no reprieve. My nephew, his father (who is my husband's brother), my son, and my husband were forced to leave the ship as soon as we docked the next day in Jamaica, incurring several thousand dollars in extra expenses returning home. "We were hustled off the ship down a back elevator by security officers into a cab. Everyone was staring at us," said my husband, Andy Yemma, a non-smoker. "We were treated like criminals." Their trip back to Miami was harrowing. They were driven at high speeds in a cab without seat belts for two hours down a narrow, two-lane highway from Ocho Rios to the airport in Montego Bay, passing vehicles on blind turns, dodging goats, and bouncing over gaping potholes. From the beginning, my embarrassed nephew readily acknowledged the cigarettes were his. He had come to the cruise straight from college in California and had already checked his bag by the time he learned of the non-smoking policy. He was reluctant to tell his parents he'd brought cigarettes and didn't know what to do with them. He swears he never smoked onboard and there is no proof he did. Nor did he realize the dire consequences we would all face for that one pack of cigarettes buried amid his socks. My son Matt, a high school runner, doesn't smoke. But the fact that neither boy had been caught with a burning cigarette was immaterial, we were told. Carnival corporate officials since have acknowledged the incident might not have been handled properly. They are investigating. The boys and their dads had some good talks about family -- and good times -- while they waited for the rest of us to dock in Miami two days later. Their grandparents took their side. But that won't make up for the family time we didn't have onboard ship or for all the missed memories. I don't know when, if ever, we'll get another chance.

Amnesia