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Decision: Smoke Ban - With council's OK, city's rules will be tougher than state’s

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Columbus appears ready to create an ordinance that would prohibit smoking in bars, taverns and private clubs. This new, tougher measure will be introduced at Tuesday’s Columbus City Council meeting and has enough support among the seven members to win approval.

A compromise resolution considered at the council’s Nov. 7 meeting has been discarded in favor of a ban that would be stronger than the current state law. If approved, it would begin June 1.

A majority of the seven-member City Council polled by The Republic said they are willing to support a local ban that is stronger than the state law. The council will consider the proposal at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Cal Brand meeting room of Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St.

“The compromise failed because no one was happy,” said Councilman Frank Jerome (District 3), who suggested the middle-ground option but will support the stronger ban. “It seemed like everyone got something, but there was a bit of ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ attitude from the anti-smoking groups. The language of a compromise amendment became too complicated.”

The compromise would have allowed private clubs to follow the current state law, which already requires them to have separate smoking areas and separate ventilation systems for smoking and non-smoking areas. The compromise also would have allowed bars that permit smoking to continue that practice, as long as ownership and the location didn’t change. All new bars would have been required to be smoke-free.

Ultimately, though, concern for the health of residents prevailed.

“The change in our city ordinance is just another step in the quest against smokers. There will be pressure on the county to strengthen its ordinances,” Jerome said.

Health effect

Anti-smoking proponents were happy to hear of the council’s change in plans.

“Our goal from the beginning was to get the indoor workplace covered. That’s always been part of our campaign. So, for the council to look at our goal at this time and consider the strongest law possible is a good thing,” said Stephanie Truly, head of the county’s Tobacco Action Awareness Team.

The Healthy Communities Initiative recently completed the Bartholomew County Health Needs Assessment, which showed that the percentage of adults in the county who smoke rose from 17.3 percent to 21.3 percent from 2009 to 2012. While the percentage is below that state mark (25.6 percent), it is well above the national average (16.6 percent).

“Since there is no debate that secondhand smoke is a recognized and serious health hazard, Healthy Communities is pleased that the city is looking to protect all workers of indoor establishments. To do otherwise is unconscionable,” said Beth Morris, director of community health partnerships for Columbus Regional Health and Healthy Communities.

“The real victims are little kids, not adults finding pleasure in an adult-only bar,” Jerome said. “Everyone has seen a mother holding a baby while smoking. Little lungs suffer greatly from second-hand smoke. That is a far more serious public-health issue than adults in bars.”

Operators not happy

However, operators of bars and private clubs were upset after hearing that the compromise had been scuttled.

“If you don’t want to go into a place that smokes, don’t go in. Leave everything alone. It’s supposed to be a free country,” said Jim Preble, owner of Ziggie’s Pub and Eatery, 3029 N. National Road.

He predicted the change would hurt the pub’s revenues.

“It’s going to cut my lunch business down to nothing. There are people who come from across town who come to smoke and eat,” Preble said.

Vanessa Hearn, wedding and event manager at the Knights of Columbus, 4440 Middle Road, also predicted its business would take a financial hit.

The K of C already has made changes to comply with state law and permits smoking only in its bingo room and outside 8 feet away from the building. Bingo games are held twice a week and are a big money-maker, Hearn said. Some of that revenue is given to the community through donations, she said.

“I don’t like (the new ordinance). I think (businesses) should have a right to choose,” Hearn said. “The government is taking away all our rights and dictating to us.”

Council’s stance

The council has been contemplating how far to go toward a stronger city smoking ordinance since repealing the city’s smoking ordinance Aug. 21 and replacing it with the state smoking ordinance that took effect July 1. Repealing the local ordinance was done to avoid several differences between the local and state laws.

Council members said at the time that they would be open to considering a stronger local ordinance than the state law. Months of discussions and public comments followed.

A proposal to prohibit smoking in bars, private clubs, outdoor dining areas and city transit waiting areas was tabled from the Oct. 2 meeting to the Nov. 7 meeting, so council members could collect more information from bars and private clubs.

The idea of a compromise was raised at the Nov. 7 meeting. But the comprehensive ban was tabled again, until Tuesday, so that the council could have more time to consider language for the amendment.

However, concerns about who would monitor ownership of the bars, and how, were among questions raised that led to the scrapping of the compromise, said City Council President Jim Lienhoop (at large).

Language for the amendment that will be introduced Tuesday does not prohibit smoking in outdoor dining areas and city transit waiting areas. It also provides a grace period until June 1 for bars, taverns and private clubs to comply.

“This may give clubs and bars a chance to alter their business plans. For instance, some clubs have plans for patios,” Jerome said.

The amendment also stipulates that smokers who violate the ban would face a $50 fine, and the Columbus Police Department would enforce the ordinance.

If the council approves the stronger ban Tuesday, it would still have to approve it a second time at a subsequent council meeting. The next council meeting after Tuesday is Dec. 4.

Lienhoop, who proposed the comprehensive ban that has been tabled twice, still supports that type of ban to benefit the health of people as a whole.

Tim Shuffett (District 5) said he also supports a comprehensive ban because of health concerns.

“The real issue is secondhand smoke and the effect it has on people,” he said.

Dascal Bunch (District 1) said he, too, supports a stronger ban. After talking with smokers and nonsmokers in his district, Bunch said it was apparent the majority favor a stronger ban.

Councilman Ryan Brand (District 2) has wrestled with the issue, believing a comprehensive ban is best, but said he was willing to compromise in order to take a step toward a comprehensive ban.

Brand has now decided, though, that he supports a comprehensive ban.

“I believe that all employees should have the right to work in the healthiest environment possible, whether it is in a bar or tavern, office or factory. The legality of cigarette smoking is trumped by the known health consequences that occur while working in the presence of secondhand smoke,” Brand said.

“Employees’ personal health should not be a part of their employment decision,” Brand said. “This is why I am going to support the comprehensive community smoking ordinance.”

Councilman Aaron Hankins (at large) is in the minority. He opposes any type of smoking ban.

“The elimination of smoking has made great strides in society, all without government coercion,” Hankins said. “We were already on the right path to eliminate smoking. Free people and free businesses need to make a free choice to quit smoking. After all these years, they should not be forced to by the government.”

Councilman Frank Miller (District 4) was the only council member who did not return messages seeking comment by Friday.

The council appears to be moving forward with a stricter ban even though a similar measure in Indianapolis is facing a legal challenge. Some Columbus council members said previously that waiting to see what happened in Indianapolis might be prudent.

However, Shuffett said council members feel confident that a stronger ban would stand against challenges because of other failed challenges.

“In no case have they overturned an indoor smoking ban from what we see,” Shuffett said.

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