Beginning October 1st, Alaska will ban smoking in restaurants, bars, and other public places. But it still may be legal to light up in Sitka under an opt-out provision.
SB63 includes language that allows communities to ask their citizens if they want to uphold the statewide anti-smoking law. Sitka has decided to explore that option and will put a smoking ban question on the ballot this fall. The ballot will also ask voters if they want to reinstate the senior sales tax exemption, eliminated earlier this year.
The story of SB63 began six years ago, a public health policy around the right to breathe clean air. So far, Sitka is the only community in the state to formally consider opting out.
The island community has clean air laws, passed in 2005, but smoking is allowed in four places: the Pioneer Bar, the Moose Lodge, American Legion Post 13, and Ernie’s Old Time Saloon. Patrons can smoke in these places will. Stan Filler, the owner of Ernie’s, really wanted that to continue.
Speaking before the Assembly at a special meeting on July 31st, Filler framed it as an issue of personal choice. “We can’t regulate what people do. So, I would just hope we can get this on the ballot so we can let the people decide what we want to do here,” he said.
Filler added that the streets would be cleaner if smokers stayed inside his establishment and others. Margaret Carlson, Club Manager of the American Legion Hall, agreed with him. She acknowledged the health consequences of smoking. “We know it is dangerous. We know it is bad for you. But you know what? It’s a choice. Just like alcohol. Just like drugs. Everything is a choice and people have it to make,” Carlson said.
But citizen Charles Bingham said the freedom of choice should protect the worker, not the smoker. He spoke about his days as a bouncer and having to quit that job. The secondhand smoke hurt his lungs. He now has asthma. “Smoking is a behavior. It is not an ethnicity. It is not a gender. So it is not a protected class as far as discrimination,” Bingham said.
Bethel, Juneau, and Anchorage already enforce a smoking ban in restaurants and bars, but the Sitka Assembly was divided on whether to bring that policy home. The measure advanced on first reading, with Richard Wein and Aaron Bean voting in favor of offering voters an opt-out ballot question. Kevin Knox, Bob Potrzuski, and Ben Miyasato voted against.
In the meantime, opt-out supporters gathered the necessary 434 signatures to bypass the Assembly process and automatically put the question on the ballot. City clerk Sara Peterson announced the news at the assembly’s August 14 meeting, saying, “I have certified the petitions that our office received (on Friday, August 10th).”
With the ballot question a done deal, the public conversation that followed was still spirited Tuesday night. Many challenged the argument that bars and clubs would lose business and staff from both of Sitka’s hospitals spoke out. Amanda Roberts with the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium said the health hazards of smoking could not be softened indoors.
“There is not a ventilation system in existence that is capable of eliminating the toxins admitted into the air by secondhand smoke,” Robert said. “There is only one known true solution and that is to take it outside.”
Cheri Hample, the clinic manager at Sitka Community Hospital, kicked off her testimony by saying, “I’ve been fighting the tobacco industry since the 7th grade. I led a little protest in my little hometown in Minnesota saying teachers shouldn’t smoke in school. Why? Because they were exposing students every single day to secondhand smoke.” Neither of Sitka’s hospitals has taken an official position on the opt-out provision.
Emily Nenon, the government relations director for the American Cancer Society Action Network, was also in town. She wanted to Sitkans to know that businesses in Anchorage have actually benefitted from a ban and spoke with KCAW before Tuesday night’s Assembly meeting.
“What I’ve heard from restaurant and bar owners is things like, ‘My tables turn faster. My business has improved. I can taste my steak in my own restaurant for the first time.’ All those things go along with simply taking it outside,” Nenon said.
Sitkans do take it outside…plenty. The day after the meeting, KCAW ran into Doug Osborne of Sitka Community Hospital, picking up cigarette butts on the street. Alongside Amanda Roberts and Sitka’s anti-tobacco mascot –a costumed person named Ciggy Butts — they had gathered 952 cigarette butts in an hour.
Osborne noticed that Sitkans feelings around smoking are hazy. One the one hand, Sitka was the first community in Alaska to approve raising the age of tobacco sales to 21.
“So on the one hand, we’re the one community [in Alaska] that’s taken this public health initiative to make it 21. But then we’re also the one who is trying to opt out of the state law. We’re the only one there,” Osborne commented. He couldn’t predict what the outcome of the vote will be.
A second citizen initiative — to reinstate the senior sales tax exemption — will also appear on the ballot. Sitka replaced the exemption with a needs-based rebate program. Petersburg will vote to do the same this fall. The two questions — smoking and the senior sales tax — could bring out more voters than usual to Sitka’s sometimes quiet municipal election.