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Statewide workplace smoking ban looks to drum up support in Alaska

Suzanna Caldwell
About half of Alaska residents are protected by workplace smoking bans, but a new movement hopes to get that up to 100 percent by increasing education efforts. Courtesy Indi Samarajiva

About half of Alaska's population lives in a community with a workplace smoking ban, but the other half doesn't. While that's a good sign for supporters of smoke-free workplaces in Alaska, there's been a push in recent years to make things even better for them.

That's why organizations like the American Lung Association and American Cancer Society are pushing for a statewide smoke-free workplace law in the 49th state.

Nationally, 30 states and the District of Columbia have statewide workplace smoking bans. In Alaska, roughly a dozen communities have bans of their own. The Municipality of Anchorage, home to about 300,000 people -- a little less than half of the state's population -- has a smoking ban. There's also one covering the 30,000 people who live in Juneau, the state capital. Even smaller communities like Bethel, Valdez, Unalakleet, Dillingham, Haines and Palmer have instituted bans in recent years.

Those have been good first steps, but Emily Nenon, Alaska government relations director with the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network, said that's about all most Alaska communities can do when it comes to smoking bans. While some smaller cities could institute bans under their city's charters, some of the state's most populated boroughs -- including the Fairbanks North Star, Matanuska-Susitna and Kenai Peninsula -- do not have the power to manage public health. Without health powers, a borough cannot implement a ban.

"We've gotten about as far as we can get with the powers that they have," Nenon said.

That's creating a disparity. In the Mat-Su, for example, the city of Palmer has a ban, but the city only encompasses five square miles of the borough's 25,000 square miles. Businesses outside the city are welcome to allow to smoking under the current law, meaning customers don't have to travel far if they want to smoke.

But instituting health powers are a bit of a Catch-22 for borough assemblies. While they could decide to have health powers -- usually through voter referendum -- those can come with more responsibilities than simply a smoking ban, Nenon said.

"(Boroughs) are more interested in the state creating that level playing field," she said.

Plus, there's the entire unorganized borough, which consists of about 70,000 of the state's residents. While many communities in that borough have signed on as having smoke-free workplaces, most of the smaller ones have not.

So in an effort to get the law moving, the smoke-free Alaska campaign is looking to increase public awareness and drum up support.

At an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Make It Monday luncheon in an effort to court support from Anchorage businesses, Nenon pointed out that American Cancer Society study found that Alaska would save $5.04 million in treatment for lung cancer and heart illnesses due to smoking in the first five years of a statewide ban. Of that, half a million would be Medicaid savings.

Marge Stoneking, Alaska director of the American Lung Association in Anchorage, said studies show that when smoking bans are put in place, business either remains flat or increases. An Alaska Department of Health and Social Services study in 2012 found that one in five bar patrons in Anchorage and Juneau found themselves visiting bars more often once smoking bans were in place.

"It shows that businesses can be smoke-free without hurting the bottom line," she said.

So far, 350 businesses and community groups in Alaska have come out in support of the smoking ban.

While buzz is still building for the statewide effort -- and has been building for years -- no legislation has been introduced yet that would create a state ban.

Nenon thinks the reason may be that so many people live in communities with smoking bans is that they forget other places lack them. She encouraged people to contact their legislators or to sign a resolution of support for a smoke-free Alaska.

With all the studies noting the benefits of smoke-free workplaces, Nenon said the biggest issue moving forward will be making sure people understand the benefits of the law. Since Anchorage passed its smoking ban in 2007, she said, no tickets have been issued to violators. Incidents have been handled with simple phone calls or letters reminding people about how the law works.

"If the laws are well understood, enforcement is easy," she said.