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Helena gets some second-hand news

Angry smokers

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The clean-air battle in Helena has heated up with the City Commission’s recent 4-1 vote in favor of an ordinance banning smoking in any building where the public congregates. Unlike in Missoula, where a hotly contested public smoking ordinance was eventually tempered by an exception for bars, or in Great Falls, where a signage ordinance requiring businesses to post their smoking particulars replaced an all-out ban, the rule in Helena would allow no exceptions for establishments that depend on smokers to keep the cash registers chinging. And that has some Helena business owners smoking mad.

“We feel that the whole process has been completely unfair and unrepresentative,” says Sandy Jones, owner of the Best Bet casinos in Helena and Missoula. Jones, who along with a number of like-minded Helena business owners is seeking legal options to challenge the ordinance, is most perturbed by a perceived lack of input from the business community in the process. “They [the City Commission] ram-rodded this thing right through,” says Jones. “The ordinance came directly from the Board of Health—no businesses were consulted—and there was only one public meeting at which comments were heard. So we had a grand total of 45 minutes to air our concerns.”

At the heart of those concerns is the issue of unfair restraints on the free-market playing field. Jones, who has determined through a survey of her Helena customers that 84 percent are smokers, contends that the smoking ban would decimate her business. “The ordinance does not cover the outlying areas of Helena,” she says, “so there are casinos five miles away from mine where smoking will be allowed. The majority of my smoking customers have indicated that they will not come in to my place if they cannot smoke. This ordinance will seriously devalue my business.”

For Jim Smith, a City Commission member who has thrown his hat into the ring for the vacant Helena mayor’s position, the matter is one of public health vs. private gain. “We are simply one of the hundreds of communities in this country who happen to feel that our citizens have the right to breathe,” he says. As for the lack of exceptions for smoker-dependent businesses, Smith says, “we’re trying to be equally fair or equally unfair to all business owners.”

Missoula bar owner Kevin Head, who spearheaded the effort to secure Missoula’s bar exception, commiserates with his Helena brethren. “Look, it’s hard to fault people who fight for public health,” he says, “but second-hand smoke research is very shaky and the non-smoking faction is often fanatical. I would fight this thing with everything I had.”

The council will put the ordinance to a final vote on June 18.

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