Reality of a smoke-free city still hazy

Bar owners worry as smoking ordinance nears its final phase

Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2007

The clock is ticking for smokers in Juneau, with roughly a quarter of a year left before a smoking ban in public places goes into full effect.

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The final phase of a smoking ordinance first passed by the Juneau Assembly in 2001 will outlaw lighting up in bars the day after New Year's.

The Juneau branch of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence is in full swing with its educational campaign to get the community ready for smoke-free bars, taverns and private clubs. Smoking is already banned in restaurants, most work places, health care facilities, gyms, bowling alleys, bus shelters, government buildings and commercial passenger vehicles.

"These implementations do go better if there is a long education period," said Wendy Hamilton, Juneau Clean Air Coalition member and the tobacco program coordinator for NCADD-Juneau. "After an ordinance goes into effect, there's about a three-month learning curve."

The first public education forum on going smoke-free in Juneau was held on Tuesday. Also, a new Juneau Clean Air Coalition brochure has been created, as well as a new Web site, both which provide information on the impending change, Hamilton said.

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But the ban in all of Juneau's drinking establishments is worrying bar owners.

"It's a big deal," said Ethan Billings, the owner of Marlintini's Lounge and co-owner of the Rendezvous. Billings is vice president of the Juneau/Lynn Canal Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant & Retailer's Association. "It's actually a big headache. It's a big dilemma for a lot of bar owners, as well as myself."

Hamilton believes the ordinance could actually result in better business.

"There are lots of people who want to go out that don't because of secondhand smoke," she said.

"Economic impact studies done nationwide on restaurants and bars that have gone smoke-free show that the worst that happens is business stays the same," she said. "Most of the time it gets better."

Billings said he doesn't think the transition will be as easy as the smoke-free advocates are making it sound. Just because some communities have reportedly done so with few problems, that doesn't mean it will happen here, he said.

"There is no way you can predict what will happen," Billings said. "This is Juneau, Alaska, and it will be the middle of winter and it's uncharted territory. Who knows what will happen?"

Bar owners are worried that revenues could drop sharply, he said.

"It's a big deal for a lot of people, and there are a lot of workers that expect tips and make a part-time living in bars, as well as owners and staff," Billings said.

If revenues do slip, the city should take another look at the ordinance or find alternate solutions, such as extending the closing time for bars back to 5 a.m., he said.

Sgt. Dave Campbell said the Juneau Police Department will enforce the smoking ordinance like any other law on the books and does not anticipate any significant problems, he said.

"We understand that there are going to be concerns, but we can look to other communities as to what is going to happen," he said. "And I don't foresee these doomsday situations taking place like people are saying."

Campbell said officers will respond to smoking complaints if not already on a priority call, such as vehicle accidents. Most enforcement will be done proactively and officers will continue to monitor bars, he said.

"It's going to be left up to the discretion of the officer," when a smoker is caught in the act violating the law, Campbell said. "It could be a verbal warning or it could be a citation."

Failing to maintain a smoke-free environment will cost bar owners $200 for the first offense. A patron caught smoking will be fined $50. The fines increase after the first offense, Campbell said.

"My belief is that the majority of the population are law-abiding citizens and once they become educated that there is no smoking in bars it will become relatively easy to enforce," he said.

Billings said smoking is an expensive and senseless habit, yet a legal right that is ingrained in Juneau's bar culture. It's also good for business, he said.

"It is a person's right to be able smoke and that right is being taken away as far as in bars and other places," Billings said.

It may be considered a "sin industry," but bars serve a purpose in the community, he said. "What's next - are you going to start outlawing French fries and ice cream at the store?"

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