Lighting up in Bismarck bars becomes illegal Nov. 1.
City commissioners on Tuesday banned smoking in all pubs, smoke houses and truck stops with a 4-1 vote.
Commissioner Mike Seminary opposed the new law on the grounds it impacted people’s right to choose.
The controversy drew 225 spectators to the Civic Center Exhibit Hall. Two very polarized sides of the audience were each given 30 minutes to testify.
The medical community came out in full force in favor of the smoking ban as did several spokespeople of the Bismarck Tobacco Free Coalition.
Dr. Steven Hamar, a Mid Dakota Clinic physician and surgeon, said some 100 studies have been done about secondhand smoke. “They all show that secondhand smoke causes heart disease, lung cancer, other cancers, heart attacks and respiratory illnesses ... pulmonary diseases and asthma,” he said.
He quoted U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona’s findings from 2006 saying, “Secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance anymore, but a serious health threat that causes premature death and diseases in children and non-smoking adults. ... There is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke.”
K.C. Chatwood of Health PRO presented 3,500 signatures from residents who favor the smoking ban. The group consists of respiratory care students and others from the University of Mary.
Chatwood said college students often socialize in bars and that being in smoky bars encourages them to start smoking. “Many students work in bars to help pay their way through college. They have to agree to the secondhand smoke — whether they want to or not,” Chatwood said.
She said the ban “would protect people who work in clubs and bars. It would set a positive example for our generations and generations to come.”
Amy Heuer, president of the Bismarck chapter of the Tobacco Free Coalition, said the purpose of the new code is to protect all employees and all patrons of establishments. “It is a health issue,” she said. She said bar employees would not come forward in favor of the ban due to fear of reprisal.
One man suggested a non-service area be set up outside to allow smokers a place for cigarettes. He also suggested increasing license fees for bars that want to have smoking areas — $6,000 for a bar that provides a smoking room with no service — and use the extra $2,000 for treatment at the city’s two hospitals.
Bar operators argued the ban would push their customers to Mandan.
“I am taken aback by the lack of compassion for the people who do smoke to allow them a place to go to enjoy their social life,” said Dwight Wrangham of the North Dakota Coin and Tavern Association. “This is serious business. This will affect the lives of these bar owners, many of whom have bought these bars with the intention of catering to smokers. It’s a legal thing. People do it.”
Wrangham’s studies showed tax numbers sunk heavily in other towns where the bars went smoke-free. He said former smoking bars in Fargo saw sales drop 5 percent and cut charitable gaming funds in West Fargo by as much as 36 percent.
Gary Schumacher, co-owner of The Stadium and The Lodge, presented 1,500 signatures from customers who opposed the smoking ban. He said the signatures were collected since last Wednesday.
“I am very concerned in the short term and the long term,” Schumacher said. “It’s going to be devastating for us. I think it’s going to be devastating for several bar owners.” He felt the four commissioners who favored the ban made up their minds long before meeting.
After the hour of testimony, commissioners gave a straw poll before voting.
“I vote no,” Seminary said. “I’ve met with with three people who are involved in this effort and asked if they would be willing to vote for a ban on tobacco products in the city and they said, ‘No.’ ... I get conflicted. Is this really about a health issue?”
Seminary said insurance underwriters told him they cannot detect if people are exposed to secondhand smoke.“I believe this is all about rights versus privileges,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it’s about health and safety,” Commissioner Parrell Grossman said.
Commissioner Josh Askvig agreed, saying the public has the right to be protected from known carcinogens.
“Everyone agrees on one thing — secondhand smoke is dangerous,” Commissioner Brenda Smith said. “I am not for government interference. I, too, am not happy we have to make this decision, but it comes down to we have to look at health and work safety.”
Mayor John Warford said similar points were made when the first public smoking bans were adopted five years ago. He said that while he is a business owner, he also is a health care provider.
“When we look at this board, we are the board of health for the city of Bismarck,” he said. “Many of the things we do deal with health and safety. ... I am supporting it because I think it is the right thing. It is our obligation as a city commissioner to look at the big picture from a health and safety standpoint.”
“I am very pleased the commission decided to put the health of workers forefront in this battle,” Heuer said outside the meeting. “I am very excited and look forward to the enactment date. I am looking forward to the next couple of months of helping the bar owners in making this transition.”
Bar owners worried about the new law’s impact on their livelihood.
“They didn’t address our concerns about outside of the bar smoking. They didn’t even consider smoke huts. They didn’t address anything that our real concern is that Mandan wasn’t going to be part of it,” Schumacher said.
When asked, City Attorney Charlie Whitman said bar owners could seek an initiated measure to allow smoke huts to be added to the code.
(Reach reporter LeAnn Eckroth at 250-8264 or email@example.com.)