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To smoke or not to smoke, Palmer voters to decide on smoking ban

Suzanna Caldwell
Alaska Dispatch file art

A little city in the Matanuska-Susitna valley is looking to take on the big-city issue of whether to ban smoking.

Smoking is already banned in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, and in Juneau, the capitol. On Oct. 2, Palmer residents will vote on three ballot measures, one which will ban smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants.

“This is not a far-fetched idea, this is common sense,” said David Cheezem, owner of Fireside Books in Palmer and chair of Smoke-Free Palmer, the organization in charge of putting the ordinance on the ballot.

Jenny Olendorff, co-chair of the Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance, said the Palmer ordinance, if enacted, would be one of the strongest in the state.

It's not the first time Palmer has looked at enacting a ban. In October of 2011, the city council narrowly voted down an ordinance 4-3 that would have banned smoking in the community.

No statewide ban

While Alaska has no statewide smoking ban, communities across the state have enacted local ones. Small coastal communities like Klawock and Unalaska have them. So does Nome, a town famous for its hard-partying, gold-rush past.

Palmer, just 40 miles north of Anchorage, is probably the one of largest communities in recent years to take the issue to vote. The town of about 6,000 people is perhaps better known for its ability to grow record-breaking vegetables. But Palmer has a bit of a wild side, too. While bars in Alaska's largest city close at 3 a.m. on the weekend, Palmer's stay open until 5 a.m.

That, coupled with the ability to enjoy a smoke during a night on the town, is enough for some Anchorage residents to make a trip to the Mat-Su.

“I would say 10 percent of overall business are people coming out there so they can smoke,” said Christopher Cox, owner of Klondike Mike's Dance Hall. “They want to sit and smoke and drink. They just go together. It's like having a cheeseburger with French fries.”

While Palmer bar owners are concerned about Anchorage business, they're even more concerned about locals going elsewhere. The city of Palmer is geographically small, comprising a little more than 5 square miles. Only a few bars reside in city limits, and business owners worry that smoking customers will go elsewhere, sometimes just outside city limits.

“The only three places you can smoke is in the bars, so Palmer is already smoke-free, basically” Palmer Bar owner Mary Lou Coddington said. “I don't understand the reasoning behind (the ordinance).”

Nearby Wasilla lacks a smoking ban. Complicating matters is the fact the Mat-Su Borough Assembly has no health powers and cannot enact a borough-wide ordinance. Borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said residents could vote to give the assembly health powers, but that would take a ballot proposition.

Small business woes

Some bar owners are upset government is interfering with their business choices. Cox also owns the Carousel Lounge in Anchorage, so he's seen the impact of a smoking ban first hand. He said he's lost $20,000 a year since Anchorage passed the smoking ban in 2007.

Cox, a promoter who's bringing Glenn Beck to Anchorage Saturday, is not a smoker, but he believes people should have choices.

“I hate cigarette smoke, I can't stand it,” he said. “But it's really simple. If you don't like it, you go somewhere else. Go vote with your dollars.”

“If they're so against smokers, where are these people that are offended by smoke?” said Moosehead Saloon bartender Dowie Ferguson. “What's the deal here?”

Ferguson has worked in Alaska bars for 30 years. She said people often come into the saloon and are surprised to see ashtrays on the table. She believes that customers and employees should have the right to choose whether to visit or work in smoky bars.

She said non-smokers can choose where to go right now. If the ban is enacted, smokers won't have any choice -- except to step outside.

“People who smoke, we don't have a choice, we can't go somewhere else,” she said.

Good for health, good for business

Janet Kincaid is a familiar face -- not only in Palmer but across the state. She was recently featured in an ad for the Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance explaining the pluses of her business, the Colony Inn, going smoke-free.

In it, she tells the audience, “Everyone deserves the right to breathe smoke-free air. It's good for your health and it's good for business.”

Smoke-free air is personal for Kincaid. Her husband died 25 years ago from emphysema, despite never smoking.

“To live with someone with emphysema, you understand the impacts of smoking,” she said.

Kincaid recognizes the bar owners who feel their bars will be impacted, but thinks their fears are unfounded. “Everywhere there has been that fear, but the reality is it doesn't impact their businesses,” she said.

Olendorff said the Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance hopes to one day see a comprehensive statewide law against smoking in the workplace. Currently 27 U.S. states have full bans. Alaska law only limits smoking in schools, day care facilities, medical offices, hospitals, government buildings and elevators. She said as more communities and businesses adopt bans, it could influence how lawmakers respond.

Smoke-free ordinances also help change public perception, she said, especially when it comes to young people. She said cities and states with ordinances in place see smoking rates decline.

Cheezem thinks the proposition will pass. It was easy to get the 123 signatures to get the proposition on the ballot.

“We have the track record -- we have Anchorage, we have Nome,” he said. “I can't imagine it could any way but up.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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