Smoking ban infringes on our private property rights

Posted: Wednesday, December 03, 2003

When is it time to stand up for your rights? When is enough going to be enough? Well, if you're a smoker or someone who believes in the basic rights of private property owners, then now is the time. The Juneau Clean Air Alliance (JCAA) is planning on introducing a change to Smoking Ordinance No. 2001-40 to the Juneau Assembly that will ban smoking in all private businesses, including beverage dispensary licensed bars which are currently exempt from the current smoking ordinance. This comprehensive smoking ordinance may also affect private membership clubs like the Eagles, Moose or Elk's lodges, and could be introduced to the Assembly as early as February 2004.

The issue at hand deals with smoking in privately owned and operated restaurants and bars. Unfortunately, the issue continually gets confused by "smoking ban" advocates as they reach for correlations between tobacco use and health issues in the workplace. For certain, few of us in the restaurant and bar business deny the ill effects of smoking; the research speaks for itself. In fact, many of us choose not to smoke for precisely that reason. At last count, 100 percent of my workforce realize they work in a smoking environment and can freely choose not to work for us if smoke is a problem for them. When government attempts to legislate the ways in which citizens legally conduct themselves in private businesses, we've simply got to stand up and voice our opposition, regardless of personal habits.

When we opened a nightclub nearly 10 years ago, we made a conscious decision to allow smoking in order to create the kind of club that our potential customers would enjoy.

Where did some of the supposedly free-thinking members of the public get the idea that we're trying to force them into our smoke-allowing establishment? As business owners, our livelihoods depend on providing an atmosphere that patrons freely and willingly choose to frequent. If we've miscalculated our clienteles' preferences, then surely business will suffer and the consequences will force our hands or leave us languishing in sinking revenues. And that is the beauty of free enterprise!

In contrast, when government infringes upon the rights of private property owners ("private" like homeowners in many ways), either with smoking restrictions or prohibitions altogether, we're left wondering what in the world will come next. Will we be forced to modify our menus to ensure patrons eat healthier foods? Who'll decide what's healthy for us all? Shouldn't the fast-food workplace have an ordinance banning the sale of unhealthy or fatty foods to its patrons and employees? The initial ordinance could be to limit each person to one gallon of ice cream a month or three strips of bacon per week or face a fine. Recall that heart disease ranks as the nation's number one killer, so surely there'll be legislation to address the incredible hazard of fatty foods.

On another note, the City and Borough of Juneau might be well advised to review the sales and alcohol tax revenues generated by the bar and restaurant business. This industry contributed approximately $7.5 million (source: CBJ) in sales taxes over the past five years and the next five stand to increase substantially as tourism escalates. To wit, the food and beverage industry now tops $75 million in annual sales (source: CBJ). Can the city really afford to risk the income and related economic impacts of a smoking ban given the current state of budget deficits and employment uncertainties? Also, if the downtown area is currently overcrowded during tourist season, can you imagine the congestion of smokers on the sidewalks and in the doorways if there is no place to smoke inside?

Smoking ban advocates will also cite "Lower 48" research on states that instituted smoking bans in bars and restaurants. Granted, some highly populated areas of the country, such as California and New York City, reported no economic impact on businesses or even an increase in sales. Other research reported adjustment periods of over three to six months, while many businesses failed due to smoking bans. There is no research available that can predict the outcome of a comprehensive smoking ban in the City and Borough of Juneau.

The initial public forum for this proposed ordinance change takes place at noon in the Juneau Chamber of Commerce's Dec. 5 meeting at the Aspen Hotel. At this meeting a panel including a representative of the JCAA, a local physician and myself will discuss the pros and cons of this comprehensive proposal. We'd like to hear from our business colleagues on this important civil and private property rights issue.

For the record, I personally do not smoke and believe wholeheartedly in the detrimental side effects of tobacco use and exposure. But I am an adult and choose to trust that my fellow adult Alaskans can make that decision for themselves. Government's role shouldn't be to decide right and wrong for the masses, but rather to ensure equality in allowing free speech, free spirit and, yes, even free enterprise.

• Ethan Billings is president of BCM Inc., owner of Marlintini's Lounge.

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