by Joel Smith & r & Few non-smokers enjoy reeking for days after a weekend romp at a downtown dive. And few smokers like getting kicked out of a restaurant to enjoy their post-prandial puff.

But what can you do? That's the question posed by Initiative 901, on the ballot Nov. 8, which would effectively ban smoking from all public places in the state, including restaurants, bars, taverns, bowling alleys, skating rinks and casinos.

The initiative's many backers -- the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Federation of Musicians Local 461 (?!), etc. -- call it a "common- sense measure" and point out the health benefits to employees who work in smoke-choked environments and to customers who have to put up with secondhand smoke while they eat, drink, bowl, gamble, etc.

But some business owners think the hindrance outweighs the health benefits. Bob Materne, who owns North Spokane's Swinging Doors, sounds exasperated when he talks about the initiative. "I don't know what they were thinking," he says of those behind I-901. He worries that the law's stipulations would provide extra work for business owners and that forcing smokers to step outside before lighting up could have a significant negative impact on small bars and taverns, possibly even forcing them out of business, as customers decide going out isn't worth the hassle.

That's especially true, the initiative's opponents argue, considering that the law, like almost all state regulations, would not apply to tribal-owned businesses and facilities.

Vito Chiechi, a 40-year lobbyist in Olympia, has spent thousands of his own dollars on the No on 901 campaign. He calls the initiative "very unfair" and says he's positive that the new law would drive customers away from non-tribal businesses and toward tribal casinos, where customers will be able to smoke freely. "[It's] going to affect each one of those small businesses around the so-called reservations," he says, pointing to the example of Pierce County, whose smoking ban lasted less than a year before the State Supreme Court struck it down. Chiechi says several non-tribal Pierce County businesses folded during the ban, and that customers gravitated toward the casinos. Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn, he says, seized on the opportunity by handing out free six-packs of cigarettes at their front doors.

New York's Ban & r & But it's not as if I-901 would be unprecedented. Similar laws have already been enacted in at least three other countries and 10 other American states, including California, New York, Massachusetts and Idaho (several of which have sizeable Native American populations).

Cindy Thompson, the Eastern Washington regional director for the American Lung Association of Washington, says the ALAW and I-901's other backers have patterned their initiative closely after those other initiatives. "It's been based and ... proven on the other states that have gone smoke-free," she says, disputing the contention that a smoking ban would have a negative impact on Washington's economy. She says they've "really focused on the studies that were done in New York," which passed its ban in July 2003.

One of those studies, prepared by Ridgewood Economic Associates in 2004, is the source of some controversy. Wielded by many ban opponents, the report claimed that, in the year after its smoking ban was passed, New York State hemorrhaged 2,650 jobs in bars, taverns and clubs and lost $50 million in worker earnings and $71.5 million in gross state product.

But Peter McCollum, with Yes on I-901, is quick to point out the flaws in that study. First of all, he says, Ridgewood is a private enterprise, and its report was commissioned by the New York Nightlife Association and the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, two of the ban's most strident opponents. "It's one study," McCollum says, "that stands out against a mountain of evidence in the opposite direction," including a New York City report issued the same year, which stated that the city had gained jobs since the ban was enacted, and that tax receipts in bars and restaurants were up 8.7 percent.

Second, McCollum argues, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, tried to replicate the Ridgewood study using all the same data and found that New York had gained 1,500 jobs and $29 million in worker earnings. He also points to a report issued last month by the Seattle/King County health department, which surveyed 3,209 King and Pierce County residents and found that Pierce County's brief flirtation with a smoking ban "was not accompanied by reduced patronage of [smoking] establishments." Not only that, but 60 percent of the survey's respondents said they'd avoided bars in the last year specifically because they're bothered by smoke. And, "for every four persons who would go out to bars more often after a ban, one person indicated that she or he would go less."

"In jurisdictions of different size, shapes, ideological backgrounds, population bases and social makeup," McCollum says, "the results are still the same: Smoking bans don't hurt business, and they often help."

That's what Larry Foland is banking on. The general manager for Bluz at the Bend casino and concert venue, he says, "We have no problem with [the ban]. We don't really feel like it's going to do a lot of damage." Foland adds that they intend to build a heated outdoor area for smokers but that, inside, "smoking does nothing but damage everything -- the ceilings, the walls, the machinery." Asked if he's worried about the threat of tribal casinos, he says, "I don't believe that. I really doubt seriously that we're going to lose any [customers]."

Local Impacts & r & "For years we've been trying to encourage businesses to go smoke-free and to encourage the public to support smoke-free establishments," says Spokane Regional Health District spokeswoman Julie Graham. Her organization, which would be in charge of enforcing the ban if it's passed, offers incentives to bars and restaurants to go smoke-free, including free publicity via e-mails and press releases, as well as a free notice in this newspaper.

Tim O'Doherty says he needed no incentive, however. The owner of O'Doherty's Irish Grille in downtown Spokane decided to go non-smoking four years ago after coming down with throat cancer. "It's been absolutely fabulous, a boon for business because a lot of people, quite honestly, they don't want to go home smelling. We were really surprised."

He notes that the pub has seen double-digit sales growth in each of the four years since they made the change. His only reservation, he says, is that if the initiative fails and restaurants continue to allow smoking, "and we're one of the few places where you don't have to put up with that ..." He trails off, laughing suggestively.

B-Side owner Ben Cater has mixed feelings. He recently spent thousands of dollars installing a new-fangled ventilation system to clear the normally smokalicious venue's air. He worries that that will soon become obsolete, but adds that "as a non-smoker, I'm OK with the whole thing as long as it's enforced across the board." He suspects "people are going to be pretty ornery about it [at first.] But there's a big group of people who won't come to my bar because of the smoke. I'm looking forward to seeing those people."

Next: Cheeseburgers? & r & For many of I-901's opponents, however, the initiative is less about hard-to-predict economic impacts or tribal advantage, or even the validity of the science surrounding secondhand smoke (which some opponents question). "It's not about cancer," says Democratic state representative Steve Kirby, who represents the area around Tacoma. "It's about personal choices and personal freedom. That's a business decision."

Kirby, who says he saw several businesses in his jurisdiction fold during the Pierce County smoking ban, thinks the government is over-reaching. He says he's proposed a number of less extreme solutions in the legislature -- like requiring business owners to clearly post whether they allow smoking or not, or limiting smoking to establishments where children are not allowed -- but notes that "anti-smoking zealots" like Rep. Eileen Cody (D-34th Dist.) have always shot them down.

He agrees with Chiechi, the Olympia lobbyist, who calls the ban "another grabbing of my freedoms" and speculated that soon activists will be cracking down on beer-drinkers at Seahawks games.

"This is America," insists Kirby. "People make personal choices. In a civilized society, we ought to be able to have some tolerance for people whose life choices are not the same as our own. When this is done, they'll probably start going after cheeseburgers. You'll see it again, I promise you that. I'll still be in the legislature when that comes up."

Summer Parkways @ South Hill

Through June 20
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About The Author

Joel Smith

Joel Smith is the media editor for The Inlander. In that position, he manages and directs and edits all copy for the website, the newspaper and all other special publications. A former staff writer, he has reported on local and state politics, the environment, urban development and culture, Spokane's...