The debate over whether smoking should be banned in Alaska workplaces is as divisive as ever, despite several years of amendments and discussion.
Senate Bill 63, as the bill’s current iteration is called, has been bouncing around the Legislature for about four years. Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) first introduced the bill in 2014 to ban smoking from all workplaces. Alaska is one of a handful of states that still allows smoking in restaurants, bars and other establishments at the owners’ discretion.
Smoking rates are going down in the state, and the majority of Alaskans polled in a survey conducted for the Cancer Action Network from Dec. 30, 2015-Jan. 7, 2016 supported a ban on smoking in workplaces. That’s the support Micciche is leaning on to keep the bill moving through the Legislature. He said his staff has worked with the public and legislators over the years to amend the bill.
About half the state’s population is already protected from smoking, but the bill is meant to protect the rest of the state’s employees in areas that don’t already have those controls, such as in unincorporated areas where there is no municipal government or the government does not have the powers to pass such a restriction.
“I think about the fact that half of the state doesn’t have the statutory ability or health powers to protect themselves,” he said. “Senate Bill 63 doesn’t prohibit outdoor smoking except where it affects others, like building entrances and exists and air intakes.”
However, the staunch opposition from the e-cigarette industry and from those who want to see the establishment owners’ discretion maintained has not changed.
Owners of e-cigarette shops still oppose SB 63, saying they should not be lumped in with tobacco smoke because the product is less harmful. Another bill, SB 15, sponsored by Sen. Gary Stevens, would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under age 19, the same age as required for the purchase of tobacco products. Stevens wrote in his sponsor statement that it would help protect young people from beginning to use e-cigarettes. Introduced last year, the bill has yet to be heard in the 2018 session.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ stance is that e-cigarettes have not been proven safe for use and are not yet legally approved for recommendation for smoking cessation, according to documents from the state Tobacco Prevention and Control Program. Banning e-cigarettes indoors could help preserve indoor clean air standards and support tobacco-free norms, according to the documents.
During a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 22, multiple people from the Lower 48 called in to testify against SB 63 because of the inclusion of e-cigarettes.
Steven Greenhut, the Sacramento-based western region director for the R Street Institute, a free market think tank based in Washington, D.C., told the Legislature that the bill as written could discourage people from transitioning to e-cigarettes. He argued that it should be left up to the individual business owners and that making a distinction between vaping and smoking will help people switch.
“Indoor vaping places would encourage smokers to switch, especially in cold climates like Alaska,” he said.
It’s a complex bill for Dave Parrott, the owner of 5150 Vapes in Soldotna. On one hand, he said he wants business owners to be able to make their own decisions — though his shop would be grandfathered in under the current bill, new shops would have to get expensive air scrubbing systems and not allow to smoking indoors. On the other hand, he said he supports the idea of banning smoking in places like grocery stores. By and large, he said he encourages people who vape to do it respectfully.
Every shop is different, but 5150 Vapes tries to keep its interior relatively clear despite allowing vaping inside. If someone comes in to buy product, they likely use it and won’t care about the clouds, he said.
The current bill allows for smoking inside an e-cigarette shop if it is freestanding or if it has a separate entrance and a separated ventilation system, among other requirements. Parrott suggested that maybe the bill could make an exemption for vape shops to be allowed to use the devices inside — though it won’t affect his shop, it would affect new ones.
“It’s hard, because I support (the bill) and I don’t,” he said. “…I’d change the wording, maybe.”
Others continued to protest because they want patrons to be able to smoke if they so choose. Crystal Schoenrock of the 4Lands Bar in Nikiski has testified against the bill in its various iterations, saying her customers want to be able to smoke there and if people want to go to a smoke-free bar, they can go somewhere else.
“I feel that it is my prerogative to run my business as I see fit as long as I pay my taxes and I’m within the law,” she said. “I don’t think we need government control to tell us what to do … there’s enough establishments around here that have nonsmoking. If they’re a nonsmoker, go to work there.”
Supporters testified in force as well. Multiple public health advocates told the committee at the Jan. 22 hearing that they were former smokers and wanted to see the state join others in passing a smoke-free workplace law.
Johna Beech, the Alaska lead ambassador for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network who said she was testifying for herself, urged the Legislature to pass the bill to the floor for a vote for the sake of workers who don’t have the option to work elsewhere.
“As a youth, I worked in a smoking environment. I did not have the skill set to be able to work in a different environment and I didn’t acquire that skill set to get me out of that environment until I was about 21 years old,” she said. “Today’s workers should not have to decide between a paycheck and their health.”
Micciche said a number of other communities were watching what the Legislature planned to do with SB 63 and were looking at passing their own smoking restrictions if the Legislature failed to do so.
“They’ve sort of stopped on their local efforts to see where we’re going to end up,” he said.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.