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Missoula fights for right to control smoking

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You sit down at the video poker machine, plug a few quarters into the slot and light up a Camel Light. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at a casino in Helena or a laundromat in Missoula, if the owner says ok, House Bill 758 says you’re free to puff away.

After the Legislature passed the bill into law, Helena’s smoking ban wasn’t the only clean-air ordinance to be preempted. The law sent out a ripple that changed the ways in which local governments throughout Montana control smoking. In Missoula, officials at the City-County Health Department say their work has been set back decades.

“One of the clearest areas where it’s a rollback for Missoula is that [the law] exempts any establishment that has a gambling machine,” says City-County Health Department director Ellen Leahy. “There are establishments in town that don’t serve liquor at all, like convenience stores, that have gaming machines, and those are now totally exempt from local control.”

The biggest blows to the health department’s work hit at ordinances that planned for the future, says Leahy. Missoula has an ordinance that forces new establishments to have a smoke-free area with a separate ventilation system from the smoking area.

“This is lost now because of the preemption,” says Leahy. “It’s a moot point, because if you can’t require an establishment to have a non-smoking area because it happens to have a gambling machine in it somewhere, then you don’t need to have separate ventilation.”

Missoula’s health department was aware early in the session that the bill would trump local law—Leahy and Mayor Mike Kadas testified in Helena against it—and Leahy and Sen. Sherman Anderson (R-Deer Lodge) offered an amendment aimed at preserving local ordinances. But the Missoula amendment failed with local Representative Dick Haines (R) and Sens. Vicki Cocchiarelli (D) and Carolyn Squires (D) voting against it.

Haines says he supported the measure for economic reasons after he saw how the ban was hurting Helena taverns.

“People can say what they want, but the results [of the ban] were pretty drastic,” says Haines.

Haines adds that Missoulians never contacted him with information on how HB 758 would usurp local ordinances.

Not waiting until next session to pick up the issue, the Missoula health department is joining organizations around the state in a lawsuit to fight the new law.

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