My Turn: City has tied its neck in a noose with smoking ban

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2008

The intention of Juneau's smoking ordinance was to give nonsmokers a chance to enjoy public places without having to endure noxious tobacco fumes. The trouble with the ordinance is that it gave no alternative for those who smoke. As predicted, nonprofit organizations and smokers in general have been successfully finding loopholes in the present ordinance or simply breaking the new law.

Instead of learning from its mistakes, the powers that be gave a knee-jerk reaction to this, and are trying to pass an even stricter version of the smoking ordinance.

So far the smoking ordinance has been an abject failure. Local businesses are suffering enormously as a direct result, and downtown Juneau is now littered with cigarette butts, visible on the street. The full consequences of the smoking debacle, however, have not yet been felt.

I salute Sara Chambers for being the first Juneau Assembly member to ask how the decreased liquor tax revenues will affect municipal programs dependent on those tax dollars. Her question was well-placed and very difficult to answer.

The fact is, Juneau has tied its own neck in a noose with the smoking ordinance, and now it seems we are going to tighten it. To seal up the loopholes that some businesses and nonprofit organizations have found, a new ordinance is being drafted that will make smoking prohibited in an "enclosed public place," meaning an enclosed area or portion thereof, to which the public is invited or into which the public is permitted, including 12 bars, private clubs and any other enclosed places, including outdoor seating areas where alcoholic beverages are sold, or food is offered for sale.

What this new revision of the ordinance means is that there will be no alternatives, indoor or outdoor, for smokers. It's like saying, "You can't walk in the street today, and guess what? Tomorrow we're removing the sidewalk!"

This ordinance change is contradictory and counterproductive. It can have only two results: Smokers will find other loopholes in the ordinance, or they will break the law.

Enforcing such an ordinance would not only be costly but futile. We should be thinking of finding the middle ground that is going to work for all of us, and possibly rescue the bar business in general from economic starvation. Enclosed spaces within public areas could be a real solution to our problem, giving smokers a chance to manifest their habits in an environment that does not affect nonsmokers. Outdoor seating areas could also be a tool to further the city's aim, as some establishments have open areas out back. Then we could all have what we want, smokers and nonsmokers alike.

Smoking bans could very easily become the next chapter of the futile and costly "war on drugs." Without giving anyone a viable outlet for their habit, the idea will backfire, leading to unenforceable laws, wasted tax dollars and broke business people.

Instead, we need to be drafting a change in the ordinance that reconciles with business owners and the public. Shouldn't we be encouraging bars and clubs to build sealed and separate enclosed spaces, designated for smoking? Wouldn't that be the real solution? It seems that the new ordinance should be changed to read something like: Smoking is prohibited in public places, meaning an enclosed area or portion thereof, except for separately ventilated, enclosed spaces with negative pressure designated as "smoking areas," or outdoor seating areas not adjacent to other areas open to the public.

People won't quit smoking simply because it's illegal or immoral. If the city decides to make the present smoking ordinance stronger, the result would cost Juneau taxpayers even more, and with no guaranteed results.

To make smoking summarily unlawful without any alternatives is to fight against the waves of the sea. Instead, we should be looking at alternatives to a comprehensive ban on smoking in public areas.

• Joshua Adams is general manager of the Alaskan Hotel & Bar.

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