CLOUD OF CONTROVERSY: Suburbs might follow city’s lead Backers: Tough Indy ban would sway others

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The City-County Council’s handling of a proposed smoking ban has implications well beyond Indianapolis, to neighbors poised to adopt their own laws but watching the outcome in the state’s most populous city.

If Indianapolis doesn’t enact a smoking ban, or adopts one that’s politically unpalatable to neighboring cities and counties, those communities might adopt a confusing variety of laws, observers on both sides of the debate say.

They say a lack of uniformity could even spawn a migration of bar and restaurant patrons across county lines: some seeking the right to smoke, others the right to clean air.

“That’s what’s happened in a number of states. You have a patchwork of quilts,” said John Livengood, president of the Restaurant & Hospitality Association of Indiana. The staunch opponent of a smoking ban noted that disparate local laws regarding open containers of alcohol eventually led the Indiana General Assembly to adopt a common law in 1994.

Critics say that measure, which overrode tough restrictions in parts of the state, lacked teeth. It allows passengers to drink in a vehicle as long as the driver’s blood-alcohol content doesn’t exceed 0.04 percent.

A weak, pre-emptive state smoking law-the approach supported by some bars and restaurant owners-is the nightmare scenario for anti-smoking advocates. They’re trying to beat down two measures in the General Assembly that would impose modest smoking restrictions.

“If Indianapolis doesn’t pass a model ordinance, I think it will be a blow to the cause in the state and it will set an example for other cities and towns looking at similar measures,” said St. Francis Hospital physician and former Indiana health commissioner Richard Feldman.

Among the communities on the cusp of debating smoking restrictions is Carmel, where Mayor James Brainard said he expects to see a proposal surface this summer.

“I would think a majority of people in Carmel will support a ban,” Brainard said.

South of Indianapolis, groups such as the Partnership for a Healthier Johnson County want a countywide ban. Savvy to elected officials’ fears about backlash, they’ve been busy drumming up media coverage of polls showing public support for smoking bans.

On this kind of personal-behavior issue, it might make sense for suburban areas to wait to see what Marion County does, if only for the sake of consistency, said Stephen Graham, associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis. Plus, “it gives [neighboring elected officials] a little political cover.”

Said Indianapolis City-County Councilor Greg Bowes, a backer of the ban: “We’re going to set the pace, no matter how this turns out. The question is, is it good or bad?”

Broadly, the Indianapolis measure would ban smoking in most public places, including bars and restaurants. It’s patterned after the most restrictive anti-smoking law yet in Indiana, enacted by Bloomington in 2003.

Backers are emboldened by a wealth of medical data showing secondhand smoke is harmful to health. They also point to the adoption of smoking restrictions in 12 states and 1,800 municipalities, and to studies suggesting smoking bans have a negligible long-term financial impact on restaurants and bars.

The momentum for some type of ban appears unstoppable, despite a failed attempt in the City-County Council to pass an ordinance restricting smoking in 2003.

“Our City-County Council should be embarrassed that a number of smaller towns and communities in Indiana are well ahead of Indianapolis in these discussions,” Feldman said.

Indeed, said Carmel Mayor Brainard: “It’s important. Regardless of Marion County’s outcome on it, we’re going to be proposing a plan.”

While smoking restrictions are being discussed in virtually every county adjacent to Marion County, Morgan County early this year became the first in the metro area to approve one.

Establishments in Morgan County either have to be smoke-free or set up smoking rooms with self-contained ventilation systems. To Feldman and others, the latter option is ineffective against the dangers of smoke, making it an unworthy model.

Even so, Morgan County is now far less smoker-friendly than neighboring Hendricks County, which lacks smoking restrictions. Might patrons of bars and restaurants in areas of dissimilar smoking laws cross county lines in pursuit of smok- ing or smoke-free environments?

John Bartle, a professor of public administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, tried to answer that question in 2003.

He reviewed several published studies on the economic consequences of smoking laws. One, looking at 239 towns in Massachusetts during the 1990s, found that one town surrounded by others with “highly restrictive” restaurant smoking policies had 8 percent higher monthly per capita restaurant sales than a community not surrounded by restrictive policies.

Another study he reviewed compared Flagstaff, Ariz., which had a smoking ban, with nearby Williams, Ariz., which did not.

“No significant changes in aggregate sales in Williams were reported after the ban was initiated in Flagstaff,” the study said.

That’s not news to Steve “Heavy” Stahley, owner of Heavy’s Sports Café, the first bar on State Road 67 on the Hendricks County side of the border with Morgan County. The establishment in the Heartland Crossing retail development has a nosmoking area and an air-filtering system.

Stahley said he just can’t envision a Morgan County smoker finding it worth the while to drive a couple of miles north to his bar just to light up while dining. He said smokers can always step outside if they get desperate for a cigarette.

“I’ve not had anybody come in here and say, ‘We came up here because we can’t smoke down there,'” Stahley said.

And yet there appears to be evidence of that effect at Joe’s Grille, in the southwest corner of Marion County.

“I have some new faces in here. They say, ‘We live in Mooresville and we can’t go smoke, so we come up here,” said Theresa McElroy, manager of the bar in the Ameriplex industrial park.

Don Hall, who owns Hall’s Castleton Grill on the northeast side, thinks Indianapolis establishments will take a hit if the City-County Council imposes a tough ban and neighboring communities don’t follow suit.

“I’d love to have a restaurant right across the border from Marion County,” said Hall, who also owns several Fort Wayne restaurants.

In Fort Wayne, which in 1999 passed a partial ban that allows smoking only in sealed-off areas, smokers “don’t go into Fort Wayne for that simple reason,” said Robert Shopoff, whose Shopoff’s restaurant is outside of city limits.

Rather than fretting over smokers’ reaction to a ban, eating and drinking establishments might instead consider the 75 percent of Marion County residents who don’t light up, said Councilor Bowes.

“We’re probably going to lose some smokers who go over the county line. But we’ll probably have three-fourths who favor a ban” and some “will come into Marion County,” Bowes said.

Some smokers say they won’t cross county lines in search of freedom to puff.

“If I can’t smoke a cigarette, I don’t want to go to a bar,” said Dave Schoreck, who puffed away outside the White Castle in Heartland Crossing. He’s already fed up with the prospect of paying ever more in state cigarette taxes.

“I want to smoke in my own county. Why drive 100 miles? Hell, I’d rather stay home.”

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