Local business owners are torn on issue of smoke-free environment; city council looking to pass new legislation

Becky Adams

Local business owners are torn on issue of smoke-free environment; city council looking to pass new legislation

Should personal freedom be sacrificed for the well-being of another? What if exercising this specific freedom contributes to the death of approximately 3,000 Americans each year?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, this is about how many Americans die each year from lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke.

These questions are being raised in many cities and states across the country, where local laws are increasingly used to restrict smoking in various public spheres.

The City of Kent has recently added its name to the debate. In mid-January, Kent City Councilman Garret Ferrara asked council to review the issue by conducting preliminary discussions. His goal is to understand different perspectives on smoking bans and determine whether the idea is relevant to Kent citizens. Everybody began “circling their wagons” at that point, Ferrara said, and now the council is waiting for the dust to settle.

“They (council) are very wary of anything business owners perceive would hurt them,” Ferrara said.

According to council minutes from Jan. 19, a motion was carried to refer the issue of a smoking ban in bars and restaurants to the Health and Safety Committee.

There it awaits a hearing where interested parties will appear and give presentations.

Nothing has happened, yet.

Councilwoman Carrie Gavriloff, chair of the Health and Safety Committee, said the issue is very sensitive. The committee wants to be fair to all sides and avoid being disrespectful to smokers and nonsmokers alike, she said. The first part of the process will be education. The committee will spend several meetings just looking at how other cities have done it, Gavriloff said.

Smoke-free cities

If Kent went smoke-free, it would not be alone.

According to an American Cancer Society article last March, 14 Ohio cities, including Columbus, Bowling Green and Toledo, have passed smoke-free laws protecting all workers and customers from secondhand smoke. Currently, 15 states have enacted laws requiring smoke-free workplaces or restaurants.

Danille Underwood, junior education major, is a nonsmoker and a former employee of the Kent bar, Glory Days. She said the smoke at work caused her eyes to burn and her heart to race, which made falling asleep after work difficult.

The EPA estimates that passive smoking in the workplace poses 200 times the acceptable risk for lung cancer and 2,000 times the acceptable risk for heart disease.

In a 1993 report, the EPA concluded that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer in adult nonsmokers and impairs the respiratory health of children. Secondhand smoke is classified as a Group A carcinogen, meaning there is sufficient evidence that the substance causes cancer in humans. This designation has been used by the EPA for only 15 other pollutants, including radon, benzene and asbestos. There is no safe level of exposure for Group A toxins.

A two-sided issue

Aaron Bohannon, coordinator of the Portage County Tobacco Prevention Coalition, appeared before city council in early February to voice the coalition’s support for the proposed smoking ban. Bohannon said inevitably the issue boils down to two sides: it’s a rights issue or a health issue. He sees it as both.

“I see it as a rights issue. I think that everybody has the right to breathe clean, healthy air,” he said.

If there’s a decline in his business because people prefer a smoke-free atmosphere, then Charlie Thomas said he’ll switch to a smoke-free bar. Thomas has been the owner of Ray’s bar and restaurant in downtown Kent for more than 26 years.

Thomas said he believes that in a free society the customer should decide the future of the business. Thomas, like many bar owners, is concerned about how the ban would affect his business.

Effects on restaurants

Kent City Councilman Edward Bargerstock agrees with Thomas that business owners should have the final say on the issue. Although Bargerstock has several relatives who have been ravaged by the effects of smoking and personally wishes cigarettes were outlawed, he still believes this is a place where government needs to stay out of private lives. He said the issue is politically unpopular and won’t go far in Kent.

It’s going to take a lot of education, Bohannon said. Research has shown that there hasn’t been a decline in business in areas that have gone smoke-free. In many cases, business has actually improved, he said.

Researchers have examined the quality and funding sources of 97 studies looking at the economic impact of smoke-free policies. These studies focused specifically on the hospitality industry and were commissioned by the tobacco industry or organizations not associated with the tobacco industry. Their conclusion according to Tobacco-Free Ohio: “All of the best-designed studies report that smoke-free restaurant and bar laws have no impact or a positive impact on sales or employment.”

Tobacco-Free Ohio’s Web site cites information gathered by Spencer Research, which shows that 64.5 percent of the Ohio adults polled support legislation making enclosed public places smoke-free in their local community.

Bohannon said that certain businesses actually improve economically because the majority of potential patrons are nonsmokers.

Some business owners refuse to take any action, because they’re waiting to see if the entire state eventually goes smoke-free, Bohannon said. Many owners support a statewide smoking ban because it gives them a level playing field, he said.

They’re not the only ones waiting.

A delayed issue in Kent

Gavriloff said the hiring of a new city manager pushed back the issue of a smoke-free ordinance. Hearings will also be further delayed until students return from summer break in order to include them in the discussion, Ferrara said.

Council hasn’t taken much action because they, too, are watching to see what happens on a state-level, Gavriloff said.

On the local level, Ferrara predicts the issue is too controversial to become an ordinance and won’t make it to the ballot. Most likely, they’ll just send a letter of support to Ohio’s state representative for a statewide smoking ban, Ferrara said.

On March 10, the American Cancer Society, along with the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, announced its campaign to make Ohio smoke-free.

Susan Jagers, director of advocacy at American Cancer Society, said her organization is working to put the issue on the ballot by November 2006 and are confident it will happen. They need 100,000 signatures before it can be submitted to the Ohio legislature.

Bohannon notes that Ohio would be one of the first Midwest states to adopt smoke-free legislation.

“Everyone knows it’s coming, it’s just a matter of when,” said Kevin Long, general manager of the Pufferbelly restaurant. Especially when big cities are doing it, you know eventually down the road it’s going to hit Kent as well, he said.

Contact general assignment reporter Becky Adams at [email protected].