Public smoking ban stalls in state legislature

BY BENJAMIN S. CHASE
Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 6, 2009

State lawmakers tried to change Michigan's status as one of 15 states without a smoking ban before the legislature adjourned on December 19, but the attempt ended with a stalemate in Lansing. The State House and Senate approved the ban in two different forms, but couldn’t reach a compromise between the two.

Max Collins/Daily
Ann Arbor resident Nick Jacobsen smokes a cigarette inside the Fleetwood Diner where smoking is still permitted January 6, 2008.

On May 8, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 25-12 to pass an absolute ban prohibiting smoking in all indoor public places. But on May 28 , the House of Representatives, under Democratic control, approved a bill by a vote of 65-39 to ban smoking only in restaurants and bars and make exceptions for casinos and smoke shops.

An agreement on the bill was never reached before the end of the legislature's lame duck session in December.

State Rep. Pam Byrnes (D–Lyndon Township) said the deadlock came from lawmakers that had differing opinions about the right to smoke in public places.

“The differences between the House and Senate versions of this legislation were not so much a matter of partisan politics as it was an ideological discussion,” Byrnes said in an email.

Now there is uncertainty among legislators about whether the bill will be reintroduced in the 2009 congressional session or if it will be placed on the ballot for state residents to vote on in 2010.

Byrnes, who supported the more far-reaching Senate version of the bill over the House version, said she would be willing to compromise on the issue if it comes up for reconsideration in the House.

"I am hopeful that the legislature will revisit this issue in the coming legislative session," Byrnes said. "While I support a ban with no exemption, I would be willing to support a compromise, as I feel it is important to have some level of protection in place for employees."

Though the ballot initiative would likely pass in 2010, Byrnes said she hoped lawmakers would pass a bill on a ban during the upcoming legislative session.

“Putting this issue on the ballot for voters to decide is always an option,” Byrnes said. “But I would hope that the legislature would take action before that became necessary.”

Though there is strong support for a smoking ban — which Byrnes described as "overwhelming" in her district — the issue is still controversial. Many establishments, especially casinos and bars, argue that a ban would be bad for businesses and drive away customers who smoke.

At Ann Arbor's Fleetwood Diner, located at the corner of Ashley Street and Liberty Street, manager Aviva Woodward echoed the concerns of casino and bar owners during an interview with The Michigan Daily in November. Woodward said business would likely suffer if customers were no longer allowed to smoke in the tin-covered diner.

“People come here every single day because they can smoke,” Woodward said. “We had a couple customers who flat out said we don’t only come here for the food.”

But Byrnes said some of her constituents have told her that the ban would in fact make them more likely to go to a restaurant or bar.

“I have been told by many that they would make more frequent visits to local business if smoking were no longer allowed,” Byrnes said.

Public health experts argue that the ban is necessary to protect non-smoking patrons and restaurant employees from second-hand smoke, a point that Byrnes said made a decision on the ban particularly important.

“This legislation was about workers' health and is an important preventative health care measure,” she said.