Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Smoldering concerns — Smoking ban sparks clean air vs. city control conflagration

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Lines are being drawn in the battle over expanding smoking bans in Kenai and Soldotna to cover all places of employment and public entrances to them.

Except those lines are different in this smoking battle.

Smokers who support increasing restrictions, nonsmokers and owners of nonsmoking business establishments who oppose a more stringent ban — it’s not smokers vs. nonsmokers anymore. The crux of the argument isn’t even over whether smoking is harmful.

It’s become more a question of limits — how far should government go in protecting health and quality-of-life issues for some by restricting the rights of others. It’s either a question of when is it going to start? Or, for others — where is it going to end?

It’ll snuff out itself
Cyndi Day has been the manager of the Maverick Saloon in Soldotna for about 20 years, she said. She smokes at the bar and is a firm believer that people shouldn’t even start — especially her two teenage sons, which is why she doesn’t smoke at home or around them.

“It’s a nasty habit. I’m addicted, and I would rather people didn’t smoke,” she said. “I’ve been smoking since I was a teenager, despite numerous attempts to quit. I fully support teens against smoking. I think if they can convince their friends not to start, that would be great.”

But she is just as firmly opposed to expanding the smoking ban to include businesses like bars.

“We all realize smoking is bad for us and we don’t want people smoking, but the way you go about it is really important. You don’t make a law to make people stop. That’s not how you go about it. Prohibition didn’t make people stop drinking,” Day said.
This isn’t an area where government needs to be involved, she said — it’s a situation that will work itself out.

“It should be up to business owners. If the customer base won’t tolerate smoking, then businesses need to be nonsmoking,” she said.

Day posted a message on the Maverick’s reader board out front along the Sterling Highway that the bar is a smoking establishment. Anyone who doesn’t want to be in a smoky environment can go somewhere else, she said. And if her customer base dwindles due to people wanting to avoid smoke, she’ll change the bar’s rule on her own. But for now, the majority of her customers want to smoke.

“It’s not what the customer base is looking for right now,” she said. “I have a very firm customer base and most smoke, or don’t mind smoking.”

If the rule were to change, that doesn’t mean people will, she said.

“They’ll just start frequenting places out of town. It doesn’t change people’s habits — they just find places they’re comfortable,” she said. “I think it’s going to be very bad for my business, and a lot of my customers will go out of town. They won’t be here. I think it will be good for the J-Bar-B and the Duck and Parker’s.”

Katie Hager, who’s been going to the Maverick since 1995, despite the J-Bar-B being closer to her home, said she’d probably think about finding a different bar if she couldn’t smoke at the Maverick anymore. She said she already doesn’t spend time in Anchorage bars when she’s in the city, because of Anchorage’s no-smoking ordinance.

“It’s not illegal but they’re making it like it’s something illegal,” she said.

Part of the reasoning behind the ordinances is to protect employees from second-hand smoke. But Day said they can protect themselves by choosing where they work.

“They can work in a nonsmoking establishment, that’s a choice that they make. Nobody works here because they have to, they work here because they want to,” she said.

There are risks inherent in some jobs, and people accept them if they choose to work in those fields, she said. Policemen don’t get to say they’ll go on patrol only if no one shoots at them, and electrical linemen don’t get to declare they’re afraid of heights and have poles brought down to ground level. It’s the same with bartenders and servers — they know bars are smoky, and if they don’t want to be around that, they don’t have to work at a smoking establishment, Day said.

“If people are against smoking, this isn’t the bar to come to,” Hager said.

Health implications aside, a smoking ban isn’t something government should be involved in, Day said. Capitalism works through free market enterprise, and government interference mucks up the system, she said. The city councils should also consider that a loss of business at bars and other current smoking establishments means a loss of sales tax revenue, people being laid off and all the spiraling problems that causes — like people not being able to pay their mortgages and an increase in the need for social services, Day said.

“It’s important for everyone to think about once you start letting government infringe on you rights and the free market economy, where do you stop? It isn’t that many steps until socialism,” Day said.

Legislating manners
Tiffany Grimm, 26, of Kenai, used to smoke, but quit when she had her two kids.

“I’ve been a smoker, I’m not against smokers. I’m the daughter of a smoker and I’ve known plenty of smokers. It’s not like I’m this person that has no idea about smokers and their behavior and the way they think and things like that,” she said.

She may not be against smokers, but she is against them doing it around her kids. She’d like to see a smoking ban expand even further than the ones being proposed for businesses and the entrances to businesses and public buildings, to cover outdoor public spaces like parks, playgrounds, parades and other community events.

“A person sitting right in front of the playground smoking, so everybody’s children in the park are having to deal with it, and there’s nothing we can do about it except ask them, and they can be rude. There’s nothing to stop them from smoking right next to the swing set,” Grimm said.

She doesn’t take her kids into smoking establishments, but in public places, like parks or in front of stores, she thinks smokers should avoid her, not the other way around. When she or her husband have asked people not to smoke next to their kids, they get rude responses, she said.

“We’ve encountered almost assaulting behavior when we’ve asked people if they could step away from where our children were,” she said. “We were getting people that would just start yelling at you and lighting up right next to the stroller or lighting up right at the entrance to the store when I’m standing there with a newborn and being rude when I’ve asked them to kind of move away, and blowing smoke right at us. It’s appalling.”

Even outside, second-hand smoke doesn’t dissipate enough when it’s right next to you, she said. Since not all smokers have the courtesy to consider others when they light up, Grimm thinks it is government’s place to enforce the matter, she said.

“There are all kinds of laws in place. People are allowed to operate ATVs but there are guidelines to regulate how they can do that, so it doesn’t interrupt the lifestyle of people in general,” Grimm said. “I personally don’t mind if people drive four-wheelers up and down my road, but other people do. It doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to do that, you just have to do that in a way that’s right for everybody as a whole. You can’t get drunk and belligerent in public, either. They can’t drink on a park bench and leave their bottles there. Why can they smoke and leave their butts there?”

For the past few months Grimm has been advocating for increasing Kenai’s smoking ban. She’s talked to teachers and parents at school, neighbors, community members and teenagers — a couple hundred people in all, she estimates. She’s also written letters on the issue and consulted with the Peninsula Smokefree Alliance.

“I know other smokers who are really in support of this, too,” she said. “… It’s amazing how 95 percent of the teenagers I’ve talked to are just totally in support of this. They’re really surprised. I think that our city really does need to listen to those young voices.”

Employing clean air
Kenai Councilman Hal Smalley said he’ll introduce an ordinance that would ban smoking in all places of employment — bars, pull-tab parlors, bingo halls, etc. — and institute a buffer zone around building entrances, at the council’s March 4 meeting. It will be up for a public hearing at the March 18 meeting. Depending on the response, it may have another public hearing April 1, or the council could act on it March 18.

He said he’s bringing the ordinance forward partly based on requests of constituents.

“Over the years a number of people talked to me about smoking going on and just patrons of businesses and employees visited with me, and in fact some owners of establishments talked to me about it. It’s not really about smoking, it’s a right to a clean, safe working environment. It’s a right to clean air. The ordinance doesn’t say you can’t smoke, it just says you need to take it outside away from people,” Smalley said.

In Soldotna, Councilman Shane Horan plans to introduce an identical ordinance at the Feb. 25 meeting, with a public hearing March 11.

“I thought, ‘Great. What an opportunity to act in concert with the city of Kenai, at least timewise, and maybe potentially adopting expanding the ordinance concurrently, and in that way you kind of avoid pitting one community against another,” Horan said.

The issue is one that’s within the council’s purview, Horan said, especially since the Kenai and Soldotna councils already passed ordinances in recent years banning smoking in restaurants. But he said he has been surprised by the uproar the ordinance has caused. He’d rank it up there in controversy with the debate over a cemetery site and an ordinance restricting sign heights a few years ago.

“I didn’t realize it would spark this much emotional fervor, but I think it’s a worthy discussion with our town and our community, because I love Soldotna for the health and well-being of all our community members and the quality of life we have here, and I just see it as an opportunity to put it on the table to see if we’re ready for such a ban,” Horan said.

Smalley said mounting evidence of the health impacts of second-hand smoke also prompted him to act, especially considering second-hand smoke isn’t filtered, and ventilation systems just remove the smell from the air, not the carcinogen components of the smoke, he said. Patrons can choose to avoid smoking establishments, as he and his wife do, but employees can’t, he said.

“When it gets into your clothes, we hang our coats out on the deck or garage because it gets so bad. I could make the choice not to go there, that’s a choice. But employees don’t have that choice. The job market the way it is, they’re just glad to have a job,” he said.

Smalley said he has heard from about an equal number of people who oppose the ban as well as those who support it. Business owners are concerned it’ll hurt business, he said, but he doesn’t think it will drive patrons out of town to establishments that still allow smoking. It’ll just send them outside for a cigarette, he said.

“I imagine there will be some that will migrate there, but as a nonsmoker I find it hard to believe that someone would go to a bar (just) because they wanted to smoke,” he said.

“There’s no doubt this is going to be a hardship on some folks initially, and I think if it passes there needs to be some patience and there may be some adjusting — not adjustment in the ordinance, but adjustments made in businesses — that hopefully won’t be to the detriment of businesses,” Smalley said.

Following a trend
Smalley pointed to Juneau and Anchorage, both of which have similar smoking bans, and said he’s talked to business owners there who said business wasn’t harmed. Some, like Moose and veterans clubs, even praised the ban because it brought families back to the establishments, he said.

At Humpy’s in downtown Anchorage, manager Shawn Standley said he didn’t see any negative effects of the ban when it went into effect last year. Humpy’s actually switched to nonsmoking a month before the ban was instituted, since the bar and restaurant was remodeling and painting anyway.

“I would say it improved things. We got customer compliments that it was a more enjoyable dining environment,” Standley said. “It was the fist time they commented that they could smell the food.”

He said he thinks the clientele has been the same, and other than some griping from smokers having to take it outside, the ban wasn’t harmful.

“People were upset because they think that should be a bar to bar issue. They don’t think the state or city should be able to make that decision, but people just kind of deal with it. We got some initial grumbling, but a lot just accept it,” he said.

It would be a slightly different situation on the central peninsula if the bans pass, however. In Kenai and Soldotna, patrons who want to smoke wouldn’t have to go far to find an establishment outside of city limits that would still allow smoking. In Anchorage, a smoker would have to go out toward the Matanuska-Susitna area to escape the municipality’s limits.

Billie Milstead, manager at Polar Bar in downtown Anchorage, said the bar has lost customers due to the smoking ban. She doesn’t think they’re driving to Wasilla or somewhere that allows smoking, but she said patrons are choosing bars that offer covered, heating areas for smoking over ones that don’t.

“In the summer it’s not that big a deal, but in the wintertime it’s cold. We definitely see a drop in business,” she said.

Her advice for smoking establishments in Kenai and Soldotna: “Just fight it. Of course they’re (businesses) not going to be in favor of it. I know what’s going to happen to their business.”

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