May be best to send toothless ordinance up in smoke

Writing this on the day of the Great American Smokeout, we want no confusion about our support for the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act.

Along with willpower, help lines, support groups and nicotine patches, the statewide ban on smoking in enclosed public places is a key component in the box of tools designed to make tobacco use less common.

It’s a worthy goal — the risks and costs to smokers, people around them and the health care system are well documented and incontrovertible.

Starting last month, the voter-approved law reached its final phase: banning smoking in bars and casinos.

That, too, is good, but it has imposed a hardship on some of those businesses until the clientele can adjust.

That brings us to a city ordinance that was updated by the city in 2006, a year after the Legislature passed the updated Clean Indoor Air Act: the “Reasonable distance” title (see box at right).

While we appreciate the intent of that law, we find ourselves in sympathy with representatives of the Cascade County Tavern Association and the Coin Machine Operators who say the one-size-fits-all 20-foot rule is arbitrary and, in fact, impossible in some cases.

It’s also not a law that the city goes out of its way to enforce.

Some businesses have outdoor patios where they allow smoking, but they technically violate the law. The law would force patrons of other businesses — such as those along Central Avenue — to stand in the street to get 20 feet away from a door.

The ordinance states its intent clearly enough: to get smokers away from “entrances, exits, windows that open, and ventilation intakes that serve an enclosed area where smoking is prohibited so as to ensure that discount cigarettes does not enter the area through entrances, exits, open windows or other means.”

Considering that the law is not heavy-handedly enforced, it might be enough to simply remove the distance from it.

City commissioners Tuesday night indicated they might be willing to hold a public hearing to discuss possible changes in the ordinance and that’s a good idea.

Tavern operators undoubtedly are already sharing with other businesses the negative effects of recession on discretionary spending by consumers. If softening or removing an arbitrary and toothless local law would help them out, why not?


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