Let communities decide on smoking laws, instead of state

April 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.

Kerry Drake

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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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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3 Comments

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  1. @bs chaser, lucky you for not getting tobacco-related disease. My mother died of lung cancer at 42, after smoking 25 years.

    By the way, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more deaths in this country are caused each year by tobacco use than by HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined. In fact, it causes around 443,000 deaths each year in the USA alone.

    Now how about secondhand smoke. According to CDC, Secondhand smoke causes 3,400 annual deaths from lung cancer. Secondhand smoke causes 46,000 annual deaths from heart disease.

    http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/tobacco_related_mortality

    Congratulations on not getting sick. Perhaps you’re even a “considerate” smoker who tries to avoid sharing your smoke. Even so, most smokers aren’t considerate. Read again what it says above: More than 49,000 people in this country alone die each year as a result of secondhand smoke.

    PS, to say that the big push in recent decades to stop the smoking epidemic is the cause of the nation’s obesity epidemic is just a wee bit delusional, if you’ll pardon my French.

  2. Lets get real . The truth of the matter is very complicated and as you will see it’s all about money.Not health issues.
    When the tobacco companies were sued and had to pay out billions to the states some 20 years ago that is when everyone bellied up to the trough. The states did not use the money to help anyone quit smoking. And a side effect of this forced stop smoking agenda has caused another epidemic much worse .Obesity. But look who is getting rich off of all this. The pharmaceutical companies. Have you seen the price of any of the smoking cessation products.They are 3 times as much as it costs to smoke. Then we have the taxers. They have a real cash cow bilking millions of smokers who can’t quit because the pharmaceuticals don’t work. Notice alcohol which kills as many or more is never taxed like smokers.Then we have radon gas which causes 1/2 the lung cancers.But you can’t tax gas. Then there is the pollution by the oil and gas and coal companies. Plus the rest of the poisons like pesticides and herbicides. All these cause COPD ,cancers and who knows what else.But Monsanto just got a sweet deal from the Government . They can’t be sued for killing people.
    I have smoked 2 packs a day for 60 years .Started at age 11. I do not have any of the above illnesses. And when I ask my doctor why, He says it is genetic. However my husband was killed by a drunk driver and I had 11 surgeries to put me back together.
    I use a legal product ,tobacco. I do not use any pesticides or herbicides and stay away from places that do or that may have other carcenogenics. Stay indoors when the oil fields in Pinedale and Big Piney spew their filth over the mountains from the west.I drink only bottled water. Do not use chemicals to clean with. And eat only organic. Certainly not corn and beef or pork which are also shot full of chemicals and hormones.
    Clean up the rest of the mess in this country before you go after smokers. We are not criminals. And I resent paying more for my habit than alcoholics or drinkers and corn fed fat people.