Smoking edict of Health Board may tread lightly
The state Board of Health debated limitations on smoking in restaurants Thursday -- but backed off before taking an approach that some members viewed as too drastic.
Though smoking-related diseases kill more than 5,000 Arkansans per year, the board is taking it slow because Arkansans like their cigarettes. And restaurant owners would rather take their cues from their customers than from a regulatory board.
Dr. Perry Amerine, the Paris eye doctor who chaired a Health Board subcommittee on the issue, said he worries that a severe restriction, including an all-out ban, will trigger a backlash from smokers' rights groups, restaurateurs and state legislators sympathetic to either. The three-member panel of the board presented its report to the full body Thursday.
"A good regulation is one that is accepted by the public and the interested parties," he told the board, citing a study that showed 80 percent of people believe that smokers should have the right to light up in public.
"Not all wars are won with a single battle and a sharp sword," Amerine said. "Sometimes it's trench warfare."
In an interview after the hearing, state Health Director Dr. Fay Boozman agreed with Amerine. Boozman said that although smoking is Arkansas' leading public health problem and he believes inhaling secondhand smoke is dangerous, an incremental approach has less risk of being quashed.
"Clearly, we have to be careful that we don't create an environment where the legislature came up and said, 'Now, wait a minute,' " said Boozman, a former legislator. "This happens in a political world. It has to become a decision of the people."
Twenty-nine states have pre-emptive laws, which prevent health boards, cities or counties from regulating smoking. And smokers' rights groups in several states mounted successful legal challenges against health boards that tried to pass smoking bans.
In 1999, the Arkansas legislature failed to pass a bill by Rep. Jim Wood, D-Tupelo, that would have restricted smoking in restaurants.
Wood said Thursday that the Health Board has nothing to fear because times have changed, as revealed by the General Assembly's April decision to ban smoking in the state Capitol. Legislators would be crazy to go against the recommendations of doctors and other board members appointed to protect the public health, he said.
"It's easier to question my judgment on that issue because I'm not a doctor, I'm not a health board member, I'm just a farmer," Wood said. "It would not be so easy to disagree with 22 members of the Board of Health."
Several health-care groups, including the Arkansas Nurses Association, the Arkansas branch of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Arkansas Medical Society, have written letters to the Health Board supporting a total ban.
But Rep. Terry Smith, D-Hot Springs, said money could speak louder than words when the next legislative session rolls around. A total ban "could cause quite a stir from the Hospitality Association out here," he said.
"I always listen to them," he added. "I'm from Hot Springs. They're a major factor in our economy in Garland County."
Smith said he wasn't sure if his constituents would protest a regulation that phased in a ban over several years. Montine McNulty, executive director of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, said Thursday that her group opposes any attempts by the Health Board to interfere with business.
"There will be a backlash if they go too far," she predicted. "The best regulation is done by the customers, and the restaurant industry has increased substantially nonsmoking seats in their businesses over the years. If government will stay out of the issue, that will continue to increase."
Amerine's proposal, submitted during the subcommittee's final meeting Monday, would require restaurants to prohibit smoking by Jan. 1, 2006, or else designate specially ventilated smoking sections. New restaurants, or those with more than 50 seats that undertake major renovations, would have to obey by the end of this year.
The proposal passed 2-1 over the objections of David Laffoon, a Searcy hospital administrator and former smoker. Laffoon said Amerine's proposal would not do enough to protect nonsmokers and restaurant employees. It would also be a "bureaucratic nightmare" to enforce because Department of Health inspectors would need to ensure that restaurants' smoking sections were properly ventilated, he said. One health official has said the agency doesn't have enough employees to do that.
To give tentative approval to a regulation Thursday and begin the public hearing process, the 22 board members would have first had to change the meeting's agenda. Smoking in restaurants was listed as a report from the subcommittee, not a proposed regulation.
Because they did not elect to vote, the topic will rest until the board's next quarterly meeting on Oct. 16.
Laffoon, who advocated an across-the-board ban by 2002, said the board passed up an opportunity to improve the state's dismal health statistics. He seemed to have support from at least two members, the Rev. Randolph Martin of Little Rock and Dr. Anthony Hui of Fayetteville.
Many Arkansas restaurants have voluntarily banned smoking, Hui said, and he doubts they've lost business as a result.
Six other states -- California, Maryland, Utah, Vermont, Maine and Washington -- prohibit smoking in restaurants, workplaces or both.
"To me, it's too serious of an issue," Martin said. "I just don't see how we could fail to take a more firm approach."