Health Board considers price of smoking ban
EUREKA SPRINGS -- Smokers can keep puffing away in Arkansas restaurants until at least April.
That's the earliest the Arkansas Board of Health could approve either a partial or complete ban on tobacco smoking in public restaurants across the state.
The board called Thursday for more studies on the financial impact on both the Arkansas Department of Health and the restaurant industry before finalizing any proposal to ban smoking.
As proposed by a board subcommittee, any restrictions approved would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2006, giving time for restaurant owners, customers and health officials to prepare for the rule.
"Smoking is the No. 1 health issue in Arkansas," said Health Department Director Fay Boozman, though he wouldn't say if he supported an outright ban on smoking in restaurants.
Public health officials say thousands die each year in Arkansas and across the nation from diseases resulting from inhaling secondhand smoke. But even some supporters of a ban say the personal freedom to smoke tobacco must be balanced with protecting public health and safety.
Based on that notion, Glenn Davis, a Little Rock doctor and Health Board president, called for two proposals to be drafted and considered at the board's January meeting.
By April, the public hearings required could be done and the board could vote to approve or deny the regulations.
One proposal would ban smoking in restaurants and the other would allow smoking only in designated smoking sections equipped with proper ventilation systems.
The Health Department will also complete by December the financial impact study, which Davis said was the only component missing from the subcommittee's smoking ban recommendations.
Little Rock and McGehee are the only Arkansas cities with rules regulating restaurant smoking, but both permit establishments to offer smoking and nonsmoking sections.
Don Phelan, a member of the subcommittee who drafted the recommendation and owner of Little Rock's Browning's Mexican Food, urged the board not to ignore the overall impact on restaurant business across the state.
Any smoking ban discussion should include the public and representatives from the hospitality industry, if the restrictions are to be enforceable and achieve the board's goal of protecting public health, he said.
The board agreed the Health Department should work closely with the state Public Health Advisory Board, which includes many hospitality industry representatives who could provide such input.
However, John Smith, a board member and Hot Springs doctor, reminded others the Health Board's responsibility is to protect public health, not financial success.
An in-house study of the cost for the Health Department to enforce new ventilation codes or smoking bans in eateries will be completed by the department's Bureau of Environmental Health, department spokesman Ann Wright said.
Board member James Duffy, a Health Department environmental health specialist, said enforcing ventilation requirements and ensuring restaurants provide nonsmoking sections would add an undue burden to day-to-day inspection duties.
As a result, he recommended a total ban on smoking in restaurants, which would require almost no extra enforcement efforts, he said.
No cost estimate for either study component was immediately available.