A state senator from Soldotna is one step closer to achieving a state-wide smoking ban in public places.
While many large communities in Alaska have their own statutes banning smoking inside public buildings and near children’s play areas, Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) says Senate Bill 209 will provide a far-reaching measure to include all communities in the state not currently protected from second-hand smoke, including Fairbanks.
“Senate Bill 209 will protect Alaskans from the well-known health harms of secondhand smoke by amending existing state law to provide comprehensive protection for Alaskan workers and [the] public in all indoor workplaces, businesses and public places,” Sen. Micciche stated in his sponsor statement.
Only 23 states and Puerto Rico have laws that banning second-hand smoke while eating at restaurants, visiting bars, or just working at their place of business. Many other states have similar statutes to Alaska’s that prohibit smoking in certain areas only within the boundaries of specified cities and counties, and there is no existing federal law mandating such practices.
Owners of businesses that exist outside areas with the ban around the country may choose to allow customers to smoke inside, and private residences are also exempt unless otherwise specified by landlord/tenant agreements.
Supporters of the bill say this is a step in the right direction for Alaska’s health and protecting their families from the ill-effects of second-hand smoke.
“If I eat poorly or drink a beer in a public setting, I do not endanger the health of those who are around me. That is the difference between smoking and other behaviors,” said Hall Smalley, a supporter of the bill who says he lost his parents to cancer stemming from second-hand smoke inhalation. “And currently, in about 1/2 the state, if I am an employee my choice has been made for me. Clean air in Alaska has a nice ring to it.”
Opponents of the measure believe this will actually weaken local sales of tobacco products, discourage smokers from many public entertainment venues, and even deter some smokers from quitting. The bill includes the newly popular e-cigarette, which is defined as any “electronic device that…simulates smoking.”
Fatboy Vapors Alaska owner Matt Waggoner cites recent research studies in a letter opposing the new measure, pointing out what he calls “overwhelming differences” between traditional smoking and “vaping”.
“As the former American Lung Association president Charles Dean Connor has recently stated, electronic cigarettes are one of the most promising tools to arrive in some time to combat smoking,” Waggoner stated. “They are proving to be effective tools in the battle as they replicate the patterns and feel of smoking, without the tremendously harmful byproducts of combustion.”
Dr. Joel Nitzkin is inclined to agree. As the past co-chair for the Tobacco Control Task Force, Dr. Nitzkin brought his own findings before the California Assembly Governmental Organization Committee in August 2013 in opposition to SB 648, a similar bill that has yet to be passed in that state.
“The e-cigarette is one of a number of smoke-free tobacco/nicotine alternatives to the cigarette that can reduce the risk of tobacco-attributable illness and death by 98% or better, while satisfying the user’s urge for nicotine,” Dr. Nitzkin told the committee. “Misrepresenting e-cigarettes has the practical effect of reinforcing real tobacco cigarettes as the dominant product for nicotine consumption.”
Dr. Nitzkin went on to note the absence of pharmaceutical nicotine inhalers from the ban, questioning the true intentions of the committee in their stated claims to improve public health. He stated the exclusion of the inhalers readily dissolves the feared hazard of e-cigarette vapors. The current version of SB209 excludes similar devices from Alaska’s proposed state-wide ban.
Among the supporting documents for the bill are numerous letters representing healthcare providers and committees, including the Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance, represented in print by co-chairs Betty MacTavish and Jenny Olendorff.
“We are relieved that e-cigarettes are included in this discussion, as research shows that e-cigarettes do not just emit ‘harmless water vapor’,” the ATCA representatives stated in a formal letter of support for the bill. “National health advocates, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, consider it a best practice to include e-cigarettes in all comprehensive smoke-free workplace policies.”
As opinions clash over the inclusion of e-cigarettes in the bill, Sen. Micciche has stated the intended goal of the measure is to find equal ground for all involved.
‘This bill does not remove the right of the smoker to choose to smoke. They remain free to choose their individual path as my father chose,” Sen. Micciche said. “What the bill accomplishes is a limit to the smokers’ ability to adversely affect the health of Alaska’s non-smoking employees.”
The bill was discussed and approved to move forward by the finance committee early Sunday, and will be scheduled for debate and voting as early as Monday.
KTUU's Lacie Grosvold and Matt Smith contributed to this story.