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Where there’s smoke, there’s ire

At the heart of the debate over anti-smoking Initiative 901 is the question of whether public health concerns trump the rights of private property owners and freedom of choice.

The question has spurred lively discussion in bars, clubs, medical clinics and homes across Whidbey Island.

“Smokers have rights, too, and this is one of the last places we can smoke,” said Nancy Brown, who was at the American Legion in Oak Harbor Thursday afternoon. She has 35 years’ experience as a bartender and bar owner. She believes I-901 would have a negative impact on business for bars.

“I see people who have been affected by smoking every day, so the initiative is very important,” said Katherine Riddle, a respiratory therapist at Whidbey General Hospital who teaches smoking cessation classes. About 80 to 90 percent of her patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis — were smokers.

Many others, she said, are married to smokers.

If the initiative passes Nov. 8, Washington state will join California and a dozen other states that have adopted or are considering banning smoking in the workplace. I-901 amends the state’s Indoor Air Act to ban smoking in bars, taverns, bowling alleys and casinos. A major point of contention is that it doesn’t affect Indian reservations or federal lands.

It’s one of the most draconic workplace smoking bans in the country since it wouldn’t allow smoking within 25 feet of entrances, exits, windows and ventilation intakes. A business owner or manager can request an exemption from the 25-foot ban based on location of entrances, but only if smoke will not enter the building.

The initiative states that the purpose is to “protect the health and welfare of its citizens, including workers in their places of employment.”

Roger Case, health officer for the Island County Health Department, said he’s been pushing the county commissioners for the last 10 years to ban smoking in restaurants, bars and other public places, but the commissioners refused.

“It’s a movement that’s been a long time coming,” he said, adding that he’s sure it will pass. Only 20 percent of people in the state smoke.

Passage of I-901 would bring major changes to bars and clubs on North and Central Whidbey in atmosphere, if not in business.

Thursday afternoon, the American Legion was filled with the smell of cigarette smoke from when a person first walks through the door. The stools at the bar were filled with more than a dozen Legion members talking, laughing and drinking. More than half were also smoking.

They seemed unanimously opposed to I-901. Most agreed with manager Tina Johnson’s point, which is that members of private clubs like the Legion should be able to smoke if they want to. She said many smokers would probably stop coming down and drop their membership if the initiative passes.

“It’s a private club,” she said. “We should be able to make our own decisions.”

Johnson said the Legion would also lose money from the sale of cigarettes. She sold 23 cartons worth in the first three weeks of October.

Lori Sutton agreed. “Private clubs should be exempt,” she said. “They pay their dues and vote on their own rules.”

On the other hand, Andy Anders said the issue isn’t such a big deal at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Club on Goldie Road. He’s a former post commander.

“We’re all veterans here and we all get along,” he said. “They talk about it, but they don’t get mad about it either way.”

Others like Kelly Beedle, manager of Oak Harbor Tavern, argue that I-901 is simply unfair and infringes on property rights.

“People don’t have the right to tell other people what they can and can’t do with their buildings,” she said. She said I-901 is a popular topic among smoking and non-smoking patrons, who all seem to be against it.

A truck driver at the Tyee in Coupeville was also very much against the initiative, on principle.

“Two words: freedom of choice,” said the man, who wouldn’t give his name.

Beedle also questions the provision in the law banning smoking from within 25 feet of entrances and exits. She said that would put smokers in the middle of Pioneer Way, an obvious safety hazard. Also, she argues that it’s not a good idea to encourage people to go outside a bar.

“There will probably be a problem with people bringing drinks outside,” she said.

Nobody seems to argue that smoking or breathing second-hand smoke is bad for health. Today as many as 225,000 workers in restaurants, skating rinks, bars, and bowling alleys are currently unprotected from the risks associated with second-hand smoking, according to the Vote Yes! on I-901 campaign literature.

Johnson has a simple solution for those who don’t want to work in smoke filled rooms: “If you don’t want to be around cigarette smoke, get a new job, dammit,” she said.

“This is not a debate on the merits of smoking,” states the No On I-901 Web site, at www.noon901.org. “The debate is whether we wish to give our government the right to outlaw smoking by adults on one’s own personal property, private business or vehicle while at the same time knowing all tribal lands and businesses will be exempt.”

Riddle points to statistics from the American Lung Association: Exposure to tobacco smoke is projected to contribute to some 440,000 deaths in the nation each year. Tobacco use remains the number-one cause of preventable disease and death in the United States. About 8.6 million people in the United States have at least one serious illness caused by smoking, according to the association.

“There’s a lot more ramifications for second-hand smoking than people previously thought,” she said.

Riddle said the prevalence of smoking in bars and many restaurants also makes it hard for people to quit. Many of the students in her cessation classes fall off the smoking wagon when they are around other smokers.

“I-901 will certainly help with the relapse issue,” she said.

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