Assembly extends smoking ban to all bars

Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2004

In three and half years, all the bars in town will be smoke-free, the Juneau Assembly decided Monday night.

A current ordinance, which took effect Jan. 1, 2002, bans smoking in most places, but stand-alone bars and some restaurants in bars are exempt.

The Assembly's 5-3 vote Monday finalized an ordinance that members unanimously advanced in committee last month. It bans smoking in all restaurants in bars in January 2005 and extends the ban to all bars in January 2008.

The decision came as a victory to supporters of the ban, such as the Juneau Clean Air Coalition, and a defeat to many bar owners and employees.

"It is a matter of choice. The Assembly should look for other alternatives before taking away people's rights," said Leann Thomas, owner of the Triangle Club Bar. Her family has owned the business for 57 years. She spent $200,000 installing an air-cleaning system.

"Nobody wants to smoke in the cold and rain," she said. "They will just go home."

The extension of the smoking ban to bars had been an emotional issue. During the past two years, both sides had battled at almost every occasion, ranging from luncheons at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce to newspaper letters to the editor.

At Monday's Assembly meeting, half the room was filled with supporters of the ban wearing red stickers that said, "I support smoke-free air," while the other half of the room was packed with opponents wearing red stickers that said, "Support local business."

Last year, the Assembly set up a task force whose members included representatives from the police, bar owners and citizens, to study the issue. But both sides failed to reach an agreement.

And the Assembly itself was divided over the smoking ban. Five Assembly members voted in favor of the ban Monday while three members - Jeannie Johnson, Merrill Sanford and David Stone - voted against it. Assemblyman Marc Wheeler was absent.

"The decision is truly a compromise," Stone said. "Human health is outweighing economic health here."

Health is the major reason people gave for supporting the ban.

Stephanie Zidek, the state tobacco control unit manager, cited a study released in February of 2004 by the state Department of Health and Social Services. According to the study, one in four Alaskans smokes.

"Tobacco is the single largest killer of Alaskans, claiming nearly 500 lives per year and an additional 120 lives through second-hand smoke," the study said. "Tobacco-related deaths in Alaska exceed the combined total from motor vehicle crashes, suicides, homicides and air transport accidents."

But bar owners and employees are not convinced. They are concerned about the impact on their businesses.

"It's not like people don't have a choice here in Juneau. We do have nonsmoking bars in Juneau but people choose to come to my work (place) night after night, week after week," said Ben Wilcox, who has been a bartender at the Hangar on the Wharf for five years. "If it bothered many of them, why didn't they cross the street and give their business to the Goldbelt, an establishment that chose to be non-smoking?"

Wilcox said he had traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area and talked to bartenders who have experienced a decrease in income along with other problems such as increasing walkouts on tabs and customers milling around and getting into fights.

"In Juneau, the service industry is predominantly independent small businesses, which don't have the corporations to help weather hard times," Wilcox said.



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