Saturday, October 8, 2016

The worst idea of the year

A 2012 Casper Star-Tribune story chronicled how the 2006 Cheyenne smoking ban came to be accepted by businesses and smokers alike. A reporter described one smoker standing in the winter cold outside a local bar smoking cigarette. The reporter must have expected an argument about the unfairness of it all. Instead, the smoker said she didn’t mind leaving her drink to smoke outside. “I love it, dude,” she said, between drags. “Whether you like to smoke or not, you don’t like to be suffocated at a bar.”

I understand how some folks say things to get others worked up. I’ve been guilty of that on occasion. I like Cheyenne councilman Richard Johnson. He’s the sort of “a-bit-off-kilter” politician that keeps things lively. He says thing others aren’t willing to say.  But his suggestion that the city revisit the ban on smoking wins the “worst idea of the year” award.

It’s been a decade since that hard-fought battle was won. With science and health statistics and research supporting their cause, ban-proponents persuaded all but two of the city’s council’s ten members that a ban was a public health necessity. They overcame arguments, mostly of bar owners, that the ban would kill business and result in closures and job losses.

The Casper Star reporter revisited those arguments, noting the evolution that had occurred since the ban was enacted. Gus Kallas an owner of the Albany Bar had expressed his alarm during the 2006 debate. He was concerned about the impact on his business. But after years of actually living under the ordinance, Mr. Kallas observed that while some customers left briefly, they returned “once they decided the ordinance wasn’t going anywhere. They resigned themselves to the fact that they can still smoke, they just have to go outside to do so,’ says Kallas, himself a former smoker. ‘As for business, it’s never been better. Sales are up.”

Mr. Kallas said the ban had also impacted his own life as it has impacted the lives of other businesses where smoking was once permitted. “There are no cigarettes butts on the floor or burns in the furniture. The smell’s gone too. It made my life better. It made everybody’s life better.”

Other bar owners were quoted in the article and said much the same.

Thus, by now we know. None of the dire predictions came true and all the health benefits have. There may be some masochistic need to put the citizens and their elected representatives through all that again but there is no sound public policy reason. The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle front-page story announcing Councilman Johnson’s idea (“No smoking in bars might be revisited” September 30, 2016) made that perfectly clear.

Mr. Johnson may have spent too much time talking with a small group of bar owners instead of a larger group of customers and employees. As he summarized what he’d heard, it was clear there are no new, groundbreaking arguments for the ban. Apropos is the argument that whether to allow smoking should be left to the owner. There are a lot of business practices that a host of public health laws don’t leave up to the owner and that is particularly true of those peddling alcohol.

Whether to expose employees and customers to the deadly health consequences of second hand smoke should not be left to bar owners any more than the decision to sell booze to underage buyers. 

The science is absolute. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found before and since the Cheyenne ban was passed, “Exposure to secondhand smoke from burning tobacco products causes disease and premature death among nonsmokers. There is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke, and even brief exposure can cause immediate harm. Smoke-free laws that prohibit smoking in all indoor areas of a venue fully protect nonsmokers from involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke indoors.”

Here’s hoping Mr. Johnson’s colleagues will not take the bait. This matter was decided correctly 10 years ago. It’s time to let sleeping dogs lie.

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