Denver – A bill proposed to ban smoking in all indoor areas including bars and restaurants, huffed and puffed through the Colorado State House of Representatives last week and is now being debated in the Senate.
The bill is rousing concerns from owners of mom-and-pop shops and bingo halls that say their businesses will be shut down for good if they refuse service to smokers.
Tavern owners wanted an amendment to House Bill 1175 that would exempt bars that generate less than 25 percent of their sales from food. The House opted out of such amendments.
On Feb. 13, the House passed the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act over to the Senate with very few exemptions. The bill won with a 41-24 vote with a morning debate spilling over from the previous week's lengthy debates.
Proponents: Health issue
For all the bartenders, servers, employees and patrons who have to breathe in cigarette smoke whether they want to or not, this bill is designed with them in mind.
"This is about rights, about the rights of those who work in the businesses in our states versus those who choose to smoke," said Rep. Mike May, R-Parker.
"When 83 percent of your citizens want you to act, this one means something to out citizens," he said. "This is a strong message; it is time for us to do our job. We have a good bill to send over to the Senate."
Rep. Tom Plant, D-Nederland, said this is not about the health of the smoker, but those around them.
"I do believe this is a public health issue," Plant said. "The inhaling is not the problem, it's the exhaling; it is the air we all breathe."
Rep. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood: "This is a very, very good bill. It creates safe workplaces for our workers."
For Fort Collins Democratic Rep. Angie Paccione, the bill was something her constituents wanted, and listening she voted yes.
"Personally I am more Libertarian about the bill, but I voted for my constituents," Paccione said.
Alisha Romero, 22, is a Denver resident who backs the bill.
"It would be nice to go into a restaurant if it was smoke free, because you go in there to eat," she said.
Romero already suffers from severe asthma and recently had an asthma attack after inhaling cigar smoke at a club in downtown Denver.
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and groups such as the Smokefree Colorado coalition also endorse the bill.
Opposition: Nanny government
Many opponents of the bill say this is government trying to dictate the private lives of Coloradans, and it should be up to private businesses to allow smokers or not.
Rep. Al White, R-Winterpark, said the legislature needs to have the courage to do what is right and kill the bill.
"This bill is a hypocritical approach to do what is right," White said. "What we really need to do is be a courageous lion and rip the heart out of this issue. If this is a health issue, the crux of this issue is to see whether smoking should be legal or illegal in this state."
Democratic Rep. Paul Weissmann of Louisville said the bill is dictating the private lives of his constituents.
"I believe it should be between a business and his/her employees and customers. Government should not regulate to this extent," said Weissmann, who is also a bartender and manager of a restaurant where smokers are already not allowed.
Weissmann represents Louisville and Lafayette, two towns with local ordinances banning smoking, and Longmont, which has no enforcement. He says his profession has nothing to do with his vote, but rather it violates the state Constitution.
"I did take a pay cut when nonsmoking came to Louisville. Our bar business initially went down. My tips were down for over a year," he said, but still believes it's up to businesses to make the decision whether or not customers can light up.
The Colorado Charitable Bingo Association also has come forward to express distaste for the bills, saying many of their customers smoke among the 250 bingo halls in the state.
To exempt or not to exempt
Rep. May and Sen. Dan Grossman, D-Denver, are the main sponsors of the bill. Grossman first introduced the bill in 2005, but it was killed partly because it did not include exemptions.
As it stands today lingering through Senate committees, the only exemptions in the bill are with casinos, the Denver International Airport smoking lounge, cigar bars, smoke shops and other highly specified businesses.
Lobbyists have been working since January to persuade lawmakers to allow certain exemptions to bars, taverns, strip clubs and other places of business with a large smoking clientele.
Republican Rep. Lauri Clapp of Centennial attempted to exempt taverns early on in the bill's progression but the amendment was shut out.
Legislatures also came forward in an attempt to protect bingo halls and racetracks from the bill, but failed in those amendments, too.
Many small business owners say it is unfair for some big money makers, such as casinos, to get an exemption and not small family-run businesses.
"The restaurants are the winners in this bill and the small businessman is the loser in this bill. Make no mistake about it, that's what we're doing; we're picking winners and loser," Clapp said.
Chuck Ford of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association thinks an exemption might be possible. The Colorado Restaurant Association (CRA), which supports the bill, intends to drain off business from taverns that the ban puts out of business, he said.
"We're not supportive on exemptions," said Pete Meersman, president of the restaurant association.
Whether the measure will pass Senate approval is unclear, but Sen. Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, said if the bill does not exclude mom-and-pop taverns, he's voting no.
Even Romero, the Denver resident with severe asthma, said she supports exemptions in bars because it is a place where "smoking is expected and can be avoided."
Local ban controversy
Pete Meersman, president of the restaurant association, said local businesses, such as those in Fort Collins and Greeley, are losing business when smokers cross city and county lines to bars and restaurants that allow smoking.
The CRA only supports the bill because his association is picking the lesser of two evils by choosing between local bans drawing people out of area businesses and a total statewide ban making the playing field more even.
"If they are going to tell us what we have to do, we have to ask what we prefer. Do we prefer local bans or do we prefer a statewide ban?" Meersman said.
According to Meersman, 75 percent of CRA's members are already nonsmoking, and 90 percent are smoke-free in dining rooms.
In Fort Collins, many businesses have become used to sending smokers outside to light up. The citywide ban was put in place in October 2003, making it the 11th city in Colorado to adopt such an ordinance.
Conrad Bennett, a 33-year-old smoker from Laporte used to "grab a drink and smoke in Old Town after work," but when the municipal smoking ban was passed, he found himself traveling just outside Fort Collins to relax.
"I often go to City Limits to drink and smoke after work," Bennett said. "I have a right to smoke."
City Limits Lounge is a tavern a block and a half from Fort Collins' city limits.
CooperSmith's Pub & Brewing in Old Town has publicly announced their sales have decreased 20 percent since the smoking ban was put in place.
Many of the localities where smoking is prohibited have tried to adhere to the law, but are building patios and outdoor smoking areas more comfortable to smokers.
James Baetke can be reached at email@example.com