From Wash. to Pa., smoking bans spark backlash

From Wash. to Pa., smoking bans spark backlash
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - From West Virginia to the West Coast, smokers are trying to fend off further restrictions on their habit, and local officials are starting to listen.

In some cases, smoking bans have even been rescinded or postponed - including in the city of Spokane.

Opponents of smoking restrictions say these rollbacks are largely driven by economic woe, with local governments wary of imposing new costs or business burdens on restaurants and bars that may already be struggling.

"The economy is in a slump, and these bans almost always hurt the shot-and-beer-type bars and some restaurants," said Gary Nolan, U.S. regional director of the Citizens Freedom Alliance, which opposes laws that restrict smoking.

"If times are trying now in the hospitality industry, you're compounding that by telling bar owners they can't cater to their own crowd," he said.

The concerns of bars and fraternal organizations were at the forefront of a dispute over a proposal in Berkeley County to ban smoking in those establishments. After several demonstrations and a petition with more than 6,000 signatures opposing the ban was delivered to officials, the county health board voted late last month not to impose the restrictions.

Butch Pennington, who owns three clubs, was one of the leaders in the opposition to the proposal. He cited the economy as a factor, but also the national political climate.

"The timing as far as civil liberties and big government helped us, too," he said. "People are just tired of government intervention in everyday life."

Extending smoking restrictions to places like bars and clubs has been particularly contentious across West Virginia. Two years ago, Putnam County rescinded its ban on indoor smoking in such establishments after protests from business owners.

Kanawha County, which adopted its own restriction on smoking in bars last year, is in the midst of a dispute with Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center, the casino in Nitro seeking an exemption from the ban similar to the ones enjoyed by casinos in Ohio and Hancock counties.

Last month, Nitro city officials announced they were looking into the possibility of splitting from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and joining with the Putnam County Health Department because of the ban.

Across the country, though, restrictions on smoking are expanding not just into formerly impregnable strongholds like bars, but to outdoor locations like parks and beaches. Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights tracks hundreds of cities and counties with restrictions on smoking, and estimates that about 70 percent of Americans live with some kind of anti-smoking laws, whether state or local.

"For opponents, it's never a good time to do this, whether the economy is bad or good," said Bronson Frick, associate director of ANR. "The smoke-free initiative is continuing, though."

Even in a bad economy, statewide smoking restrictions have been enacted in Wisconsin and North Carolina, the latter in the heart of tobacco country, Frick said.

The implementation of restrictions across the country is uneven, though, because many states like West Virginia leave the question of regulating cigarette smoke up to counties and municipalities.

Last month, the park board in Spokane, Wash. voted to reverse an earlier decision to phase in a complete tobacco ban in all city parks.

The ban would have been nearly impossible to enforce, said City Councilman Bob Apple, because it clashed with a state law allowing smoking on public rights-of-way, and city parks are full of those.

The restriction would have set up the possibility of costly litigation, Apple said.

"I don't disagree with the position, but the city of Spokane shouldn't try to do something they can't do," he said. "It's an unenforceable law, and unless something changes, there's nothing we can do about it."

In Pennsylvania, a ban on smoking - including in outdoor areas - on the campuses of 14 state colleges and universities was overturned by the state Labor Relations Board, which ruled that the ban had been imposed without negotiating with the faculty union.

In Stephenville, a city of fewer than 20,000 residents in central Texas, the reason for not adopting a ban this year was even simpler: almost no one in town seemed to want one.

At one public hearing, Mayor Nancy Hunter said, only a single resident spoke in favor of a ban. Hunter, who initially favored the idea, ultimately decided it would impose too great a financial burden on local businesses.

"We don't feel as a government entity that we should be imposing those kinds of restrictions on private property and private business," she said.

Stephenville's example is fairly common, according to Thomas Carr, manager of national policy for the American Lung Association, which supports smoking restrictions. It's rarer for bans to be rescinded than it is for officials to decline to impose restrictions in the face of community opposition or indifference, he said.

"Once an ordinance is approved, it tends to stick around," he said.