State Rep. Charlie Brown has a simple goal: ban smoking in enclosed public places in Indiana.
But Brown, a Democrat from Gary, knows getting his legislation through the General Assembly won’t be easy.
The bill has been characterized as one that pits life or death against dollars and cents. But it’s not nearly so black and white and raises many questions and issues, from the factual to the philosophical.
Bills that lend themselves to multiple arguments are often the most difficult to navigate successfully into law.
Brown’s bill would ban smoking in all enclosed areas where the public is allowed, including restaurants, bars, casinos and bowling alleys. During a committee hearing on the legislation before a packed House chamber last week, proponents and opponents spoke out.
Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons that came out of the meeting.
First, the life or death argument:
Several backers of Brown’s bill were health advocates who said it would save lives. Former state health commissioner Richard Feldman said there is undisputed evidence that secondhand smoke causes heart and lung disease and other illnesses among many nonsmokers.
Bruce Hetrick, an Indianapolis businessman and IBJ columnist, said his wife, Pam Klein, never smoked in her 49-year life but died in his arms of cancer in 2005 from what doctors tied to secondhand smoke she had inhaled during her 25 years as a journalist.
“On behalf of Pam and our sons, please pass this bill,” he said to a hushed audience. “Pass it today so we can start saving lives tomorrow.”
Emotional testimony from average citizens can sometimes sway lawmakers to vote a certain way – and it could affect the fate of this bill.
Some argued that public places that allow smoking were subjecting nonsmoking workers to the ills of secondhand smoke. Brown said some people have no choice but to work in such places because they can’t find other jobs, and they had a right to breathe clean air.
There were the dollar-and-cents arguments, some pro-ban, some not.
One businessman who has restaurants in places with smoking bans said the restrictions had made his restaurants easier to run and did not hurt business. Former state commerce secretary Mickey Maurer (a co-owner of IBJ Media Corp.) said a statewide smoking ban could help entice some companies to locate in Indiana because their health care costs would be lower.
But others were adamant that they would see ill effects if a ban were imposed.
Mike Smith, president of the Casino Association of Indiana, predicted that a ban would cost the state and local governments about $150 million of the approximately $1 billion casinos pay in annual taxes.
A bar owner in northern Indiana’s Union Mills said 50 percent to 75 percent of her customers smoke, and a ban would probably put her out of business.
A lobbyist for the Indiana Licensed Beverage Association, which represents about 700 bars in Indiana, said local smoking bans already had put many bars out of businesses, costing jobs.
The arguments also veered into broader philosophical discussions of whether government had a right to impose smoking bans at all.
Michael Kole of Indianapolis said he doesn’t smoke and won’t go to places where it’s allowed. But he said cigarettes are a legal product, and employers – not government – should decide whether to allow smoking in their establishments.
Other opponents of a ban noted that customers could choose which bars or restaurants to visit.
Feldman, the former state health commissioner, argued that government regulates many health issues and has a right to ban smoking in public places.
“Personal liberties have never been absolute,” Feldman said. “Personal freedoms have always been balanced by the better public good.”
The House Public Policy Committee is expected to vote on Brown’s bill this week. If approved, it would go to the full House for consideration.
Some lawmakers have surely decided how they will vote on the bill, but like other bills that raise so many questions, those who are undecided could have a lot of factors to weigh.
Bills with simple language don’t always produce simple votes.