Let communities decide on smoking laws, instead of stateApril 2, 2013
Twenty-eight states now ban smoking in all enclosed public places, including bars and restaurants. Despite widespread support in Wyoming for obvious health reasons, there’s enough dissent from residents who think businesses should decide their own smoking policies that I doubt our state will ever join the list.
Several attempts to pass a statewide smoking ban have failed in the Legislature, though one bill managed to get through the House before stalling in a Senate committee. The preference in Wyoming seems to be to allow local governments to control smoking in public places, instead of a state law. According to Americans for Non-smokers’ Rights, 25 communities in the state have some restrictions on smoking.
Reactions to smoking bans vary widely, depending upon where one lives in the state. Wyoming’s two biggest cities, Cheyenne and Casper, share many similarities, but each has responded differently to the efforts of anti-smoking groups.
Cheyenne, which passed a comprehensive smoking ban in 2006 that includes all restaurants and bars, was initially divided about the impacts on the capital city’s businesses. Those who fought the ban claimed that it would drive many bars out of business, by forcing customers who wanted to smoke to venture to places in Laramie County outside the city limits.
But a petition soon after the ban went into effect failed to gain enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot, and while a few initially lost some business, the predicted failure of bars to remain open didn’t materialize. Seven years later, the smoking ban is part of Cheyenne’s lifestyle, and the vast majority of bar patrons accept that if they want to smoke, they have to go outside, even in inclement weather.
Unlike their Cheyenne counterparts, the smoking issue has helped polarize Casper residents, who have been much less accepting of the decisions of their city officials. The Casper City Council passed a smoking ban in 2000, but before it even went into effect, opponents gathered enough signatures for a public referendum, where the ban was narrowly overturned.
The situation remained unchanged for more than a decade before a new coalition, Smokefree Natrona County, went to the council to promote a new ban. It passed, 7-2, and was scheduled to go into effect last Sept. 1. This time, though, business rights advocates led by Pat Sweeney, the owner of several Casper bars and restaurants, failed by a wide margin to get the issue on the general election ballot, and the ban was enforced.
While smoke-free advocates enjoyed the victory, it’s been short-lived. Several council candidates won election last fall by campaigning to repeal the smoking ban, and with four new members and a suddenly revived group of opponents, sentiment against the ban is picking up. In a straw vote last month, the council decided 5-4 that it wanted to either amend or repeal the ban.
The business rights sector claims that since the vast majority of restaurants and bars in Casper had already voluntarily become smoke-free, it wasn’t necessary to enact a ban — customers who wanted to smoke could go to the few places that allowed it, and the rest could enjoy a smoke-free atmosphere. After the ban went into effect, a few neighborhood bars that previously catered to a smoking clientele reported that their business was down by as much as 50 percent, with their customers choosing to travel to bars and lounges in nearby Mills and Evansville that still allow smoking.
Last week, the city council decided that instead of an outright repeal, it will try to amend the smoking ban to allow bars, lounges and taverns in the city to decide for themselves whether to allow smoking. Members of private clubs would be allowed to smoke, but when the clubs hosted public events, the ban would be back into effect. All restaurants in the city, meanwhile, would remain smoke-free.
Sweeney and other owners have tried to spin the amendments as a reasonable compromise, but Smokefree Natrona County is having absolutely none of it. The coalition’s leaders have adamantly vowed that they will immediately launch a petition drive the moment the council changes or repeals the smoking ban it fought so hard to obtain.
The council also appears to have no desire to back down, despite some justifiable criticism from ban supporters that six months is too short of a period to determine whether the ban should continue. The coalition argues that claims of lost business by the opposition have not been proven to be true, and amount to scare tactics.
The group avows that the health of the public, including restaurant and bar patrons and employees, trumps the rights of business owners to decide whether to allow smoking. While this argument has ruled the day in Cheyenne and Laramie, which passed the state’s first smoking ban, in other cities pro-business forces have been able to successfully amend city ordinances to allow smoking in bars.
Rock Springs initially passed a comprehensive smoking ban in enclosed public places, but soon amended it to exclude bars, lounges, taverns and private clubs. Sweeney maintains Casper should support “the Rock Springs model” so business owners can decide their own fate instead of being driven out of operation by government regulation.
It’s an argument that carries some heft in Wyoming politics, due to long-term beliefs held by many residents that the government should stay out of everyone’s way, whether it’s city, county, state or federal officials doing the mandating.
If Smokefree Natrona County ultimately gets the issue on the ballot, it plans to push for a county-wide vote on the ban instead of just Casper. Citing polls two years ago that show two-thirds of all county residents support a ban, the group sees it as a strategy that can’t fail.
I’m not so sure. Rural residents are also the most likely to resent the government for telling them what to do, and they also have a larger percentage of smokers than city residents. The new result of spreading the election across the entire county might be to just make it a closer vote.
At this stage of the game, though, I believe a public referendum is the best way to resolve the controversy over smoking in public places in communities that haven’t respected the decisions made by their elected representatives. Even though it’s expensive — a special Natrona County election on a smoking ban would cost an estimated $25,000 — it would be worth the money if both sides could agree to lay the issue aside after the voters decide.
Like the individual nature of its residents that it favorably promotes, Wyoming seems to be a place where cities and towns hold unique beliefs and ideas that don’t always match a one-size-fits-all solution like a statewide smoking ban. My personal belief is that a ban would be good for the health of our residents, but I also recognize that adults who choose to go into a bar and drink alcohol have already made an unhealthy but legal decision. If they also decide to smoke, should it really be up to the state to tell them it’s illegal? I’d prefer to let each community decide its own standards on this issue.
— Kerry Drake is the editor of the Casper Citizen, a new nonprofit online community newspaper.
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