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Second-hand smoke the price of admission

Another opinion

May 13, 2012
The Traverse City Record-Eagle

In 2001, Traverse City, with a population of less than 15,000, had 127 smoke-free restaurants, second only to Grand Rapids, the second-largest city in the state, according to the state Department of Community Health.

By 2009 Traverse City was No. 1 in terms of smoke-free restaurants, and Grand Traverse County, with 203 smoke-free establishments, was in the top 10 statewide.

It was - and remains to this day - an unequivocal statement: The people who make a living in the bar and restaurant business here supported, long before it was fashionable, bans on smoking in restaurants and bars, and were doing just fine.

In 2010 the Legislature took the public health issue to its logical conclusion and passed a statewide smoking ban.

But now comes Howard Walker, a state senator who represents Traverse City and Grand Traverse County, who wants to open the door to carving out exemptions to the prohibition.

At first glance, it seems like a small thing. Walker has tacked an amendment onto the Michigan Department of Community Health's budget bill that would prevent the state from enforcing the smoking ban at longtime charitable fundraising events.

Specifically, Walker wants to force the state to turn a blind eye to the annual Father Fred Foundation Cigar Dinner. The American Cancer Society has said the group has been looking for a loophole to the law since it passed, and now they've found one - a walking, talking loophole named Howard.

Walker has said the carveout would "help some of the most needy and vulnerable in our communities."

He presumably doesn't mean those attending the cigar dinner.

OK, it's just one cigar dinner in one small town in Michigan once a year. No big deal, right?

Well, if it was just one cigar dinner once a year in one town, probably not.

But anyone who knows anything about how laws get made - and unmade for some - also knows this won't be the last amendment to community health's budget bill or the education bill or the higher ed bill.

If it works for Walker and Father Fred, it will work for others.

Walker, who voted against the smoking ban when it was approved two years ago, has at least been consistent.

"Philosophically I'm opposed to the smoking ban," he said. "I think these decisions should be left up to the property owner or the employees or the patrons."

What that argument - the oldest in the pro-smoking books - ignores, however, is that this is a public health issue, not a free-enterprise debate.

This is about second-hand smoke, a proven cause of cancer, and about forcing restaurant patrons and employees to expose themselves to a known carcinogen - if they want to keep their jobs.

How many other jobs force employees to face known cancer risks just to earn a buck? Would a restaurant knowingly expose patrons or employees to bad meat or carbon monoxide?

Walker said he introduced the amendment because of the need to "raise money for the most needy in our community."

So it's OK to force a few employees to breathe second-hand smoke to help the needy? What a stretch.

In fact, this whole thing is a sham. Yes, the cigar dinner raises money for the Father Fred Foundation which does a lot of good in this town. But there is no reason in the world why the cigar dinner is the only way to do that or that it has to be held in a local restaurant and force an exception to state law.

Hold it in a fancy outdoor tent - which has been done before - or someone's home or on someone's boat or a barge out in West Bay. Or just pass the hat.

This is bad public policy made worse by the fact that it's being justified in the name of a venerable local charity.



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