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Smoking Ban / Government

Why Indy seems slow to ban smoking

October 6, 2009
KEYWORDS Smoking Ban / Government

As the City-County Council takes up a proposal to close loopholes in its anti-smoking ordinance, it seems like Indianapolis is one of the last large cities to ban smoking.

It isn’t, of course. Cincinnati, Detroit and Milwaukee continue to allow considerable latitude. Yet—still close to home—Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, are smoke-free in work places, restaurants and freestanding bars, according to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. So is Louisville, the largest city in the tobacco haven of Kentucky.

If Indianapolis is considered a model on fronts ranging from downtown revitalization to fiscal responsibility, why is it so late to ban smoking?

George Geib, who has been observing Indianapolis as a Butler University historian for 45 years, has a theory. To understand the reluctance, Geib says, one must understand Indiana migration patterns and ultimately the coalitions and political movements arising from those patterns.

Indiana may be pretty white-bread when it comes to immigrants, but Geib points out that the state actually is quite diverse when domestic migration is considered. New Englanders, mid-Atlantic people, northerners and southerners all have put down roots here.

As a result, leaders of movements and political parties have struggled to build coalitions since at least the 1830s. The few coalitions that do get traction tend to focus on moral issues (Prohibition and bans on package liquor sales on Sundays) and economic matters (both unions and chambers of commerce maintain strong presences).

Geib thinks smoking bans have been slow to take hold because people pushing other causes worry about offending smokers who might be needed to help them get traction with their own pet issues.

“When you have a diverse state, there’s a lot of pressure on you to build coalitions,” he says.

Further complicating the turbulent political landscape is Indiana’s own role in the tobacco industry. The state’s allotments aren’t what they used to be, but Hoosiers in southern counties have long cultivated some of the most sought-after tobacco in the nation.

Both the ideological fractures and tobacco heritage are reflected in Indianapolis politics and smoking bans, says Geib, whose parents died of illnesses he’s certain resulted from smoking two packs of Camels a day.

What do you think of Geib’s ideas? Do you buy them? Is it harder to bring change here than in other places?

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