Smoking Ban 'Option' Now On The Table

December 10, 2007
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LANSING — This year alone, there have been 10 proposals by legislators to ban public smoking in some way, shape or form. One stands out from the rest, however: Instead of requiring restaurants to outlaw smoking, it would reward those that choose to comply.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jason Allen, R-Traverse City, would allow local governments to provide property tax exemptions for bars and restaurants that ban smoking.

More than 20 counties have passed ordinances banning cigarette smoking in workplaces and other public venues, but nothing has passed at the state level to force restaurants and bars to prohibit smoking.

Joe Agnostinelli, Allen’s legislative director, said the bill is intended to promote a compromise on the issue and provide restaurants an opportunity to choose whether they want to allow smoking.

“Our intention was to find some middle ground on an issue that’s been percolating for more than six years now,” Agnostinelli said.  “Sen. Allen doesn’t feel it’s the state’s position to make mandates to restaurants about how they operate their private establishment.”

Co-sponsors are Sens. Randy Richardville, R-Monroe; Valde Garcia, R-Howell; Alan Sanborn, R-Richmond Township; and Jim Barcia, D-Bay City.

But Angy Webb, tobacco programs manager for the American Lung Association of Michigan, disagreed, saying the state has a responsibility to protect its residents.

“This is a public safety issue,” Webb said.  “Our goal is to see all public and private workplaces go smoke-free.”

Webb said her organization’s concern isn’t just for the health of smokers and other patrons, but also for employees of businesses that allow smoking on their premises.

“People who work in bars — waitresses, bartenders, entertainers — all these people are exposed to second-hand smoke, which is the second-leading cause of death in the United States,” Webb said.

Andy Deloney, vice president of public affairs for the Michigan Restaurant Association, said the industry group is against the state interfering with businesses — but appreciates the options provided by the proposal.

“If the state has an interest in promoting non-smoking restaurants, this is the way to do it,” Deloney said. “We don’t support smoking or non-smoking — we support restaurants and tavern operators making decisions for themselves.”

Agnostinelli said the legislation will appeal to owners of businesses that allow smoking because it gives them options instead of orders.

“The goal is to use the carrot instead of the stick,” he said.  “If you give incentives to change a company’s policy, it’s easier than requiring them to do something.

“I’ve gotten calls from business owners who say this is much better than the state telling them what to do inside their own private establishment,” Agnostinelli said.

Deloney agreed, saying, “If something does need to be done, we’re definitely more appreciative of the carrot approach than the stick.”

Webb said she understands the concerns of restaurant owners “from a business standpoint,” but said nothing would be fairer than an absolute ban on smoking inside any public place.

“They want a level playing field, but if the state goes smoke-free, it would provide a level playing field because no restaurant would worry about losing business to the bar across the street,” Webb said.

But Deloney said that restaurant owners are good at providing what their customers demand —including a smoke-free environment.

“Since 1998, smoke-free restaurants in Michigan have increased by 115 percent,” Deloney said.  “That says one thing: As more people say they don’t want smoking in their restaurants, more owners are providing that environment for them.”

Agnostinelli said the state shouldn’t determine what incentives are offered to cooperating restaurant owners, which is why Allen’s proposal would leave that choice to local governments.

“The bill lets the local governing body allow for tax exemptions — it’s their decision to decide to what extent they want to take it,” Agnostinelli said.  “It’s a decision for the locals how they want to enforce it.”

He acknowledged that although local governments would lose revenue by reducing taxes, the state wouldn’t reimburse any of that loss.

Summer Minnick, director of state affairs for the Michigan Municipal League, said, “The legislation is favorable because it’s not mandatory. It puts control in the hands of local governments.”

The league, which represents cities and villages, has no official position on the bill, Minnick said.

The Lung Association’s Webb said the state should join the long list of other governments that totally ban smoking inside public places.

“Other countries have gone entirely smoke-free. Why can’t Michigan?” she said.

Webb added that although Allen’s proposal doesn’t go far enough, that doesn’t mean she’s totally opposed to it.

“If we aren’t moving in the direction of being smoke-free, then I suppose something is better than nothing,” she said.

The bill is pending before the Senate Finance Committee.

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