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Smoke and mirrors

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p> Kevin Head is ready for war.

To hear the owner of the Rhinoceros-a downtown Missoula watering hole famed for its dozens of beers on tap-tell it, he and his fellow bar owners are on the defensive in a new kind of crusade, the battle to eradicate smoking. On November 19, the Missoula City/County Board of Health unanimously voted to support a law that would snuff out cigarettes in virtually every business in town.

Although the proposed ordinance affords bars a longer grace period than any other businesses, Garden City drinkers would have to adjust to smoke-free imbibing within a year of its adoption. The ban's supporters-the City/County Health Department, the American Lung Association's local chapter and others-emphasize the need to protect workers from carcinogenic environments. Head, on the other hand, calls the proposal an unconscionable assault on freedom of choice, not to mention his ability to do business.

He says the sweeping, highly restrictive proposal put forward by the health board, which would wipe out smoking in most businesses within 90 days of its approval, reflects the puritanical zeal of a minority.

"The new Prohibitionists are not from the religious far-right," Head says. "They're from the self-righteous, politically correct far-left. And that's all this would be, a new Prohibition."

He says the Missoula County Tavern Owners Association, inflamed by the Health Board's vote and worries for their future, are ready for battle as the city council prepares to consider the ban in committee this month. He adds, though, that he feels he and his comrades are up against long odds.

"How can you say anything bad about the American Lung Association?" he says ruefully. "It's like going up against Mother Teresa. They've put together this interesting double standard, where everything they say is the gospel truth and everything we say is a lie."

Health department director Ellen Leahy, for her part, says the tavern owners are looking to seize center stage in a debate that should rightfully be much broader. "There's much more to the argument than taverns and what happens in taverns," says Leahy. "What I would emphasize is that the board is coming at it from a worker-protection aspect. They are convinced that the duration of exposure some workers go through is detrimental, and that workers have little control over their environment.

"The board didn't want to categorically exempt taverns because those are some of the workers who are most likely to suffer from long-term exposure."

Leahy says tavern owners had a chance to make a positive contribution to the months of discussion that went into drafting the current proposal and chose obstruction instead.

"There was an initial proposal that would have categorically exempted bars and taverns," she says. "The tavern owners' association opposed that too. I find that very interesting. If they wanted to be exempt, they had an opportunity at that time to get behind a law that would have done that."

The tavern owners did present a proposal that would have established a system of uniform, high-profile signs to be posted by businesses allowing smoking. Leahy says that this idea ultimately paled in comparison to what the nine-member board saw as an overwhelming need to stop smoking.

"I just think that the more we learn about how harmful tobacco smoke is, the more compelled we feel to fight it on all fronts," she says. "Regulation is one of those fronts.

"When we looked at some of the things we already regulate, there are things that are much less harmful and much less widespread than second-hand tobacco smoke that are already regulated. There are 40 human carcinogens in environmental tobacco smoke that are proven to cause cancer. We regulate substances that are just suspected carcinogens."

Leahy offers that such health concerns, backed by science, outweigh Head's economic fears, which she considers dubious anyway. Head, on the other hand, points to the failure of a short-lived smoke-free bar he owned two years ago as evidence the law would impact his trade.

"I had a smoke-free bar, the Moose," he says. "I saw what a smoke-free bar did in this town. It didn't do jack."

Head also disputes the connection between second-hand smoke and health problems like lung cancer. More to the point, he says the law would represent an arrogant intrusion into the realm of private morality.

"You have a choice whether to smoke, associate with smokers or work in a smoking establishment," he says. "It's not like stepping outside and breathing the air or drinking the water. This benign superiority these folks keep trying to inflict on the rest of us just makes me want to scream.

"They say they want to protect workers. Well, ask bartenders if they want their ability to make tips and work shifts cut."

Indeed, bartenders represented by the local Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) oppose a restrictive smoking law.

"We're convinced it has a negative impact on business and our members," says Secky Fascione of HERE.

While Head hammers on his view that the current proposal is the work of a minority bent on stopping smoking at all costs, Leahy counters with her department's belief that a sharp curb on smoking enjoys broad support.

"We continue to get letters from people who say they're exposed at work," she says. "They often say they don't feel they can safely work to change things on their own. And Montana's Constitution is very clear on the right of people to have a 'clean and healthful' environment. I don't think the Constitution reflects a minority viewpoint."

Head is unmoved by such assertions.

"They're on a moral crusade where their prejudices and their assumptions are now to be imposed on everyone else," he says. "Every time I hear about this 'vast majority' that wants smoking completely banned, I want to laugh."

The City Council's Public Safety and Health Committee will set a hearing on the ordinance sometime this week.

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