City Hall — Hearing On Public Smoking

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March 24, 2005

On March 16, the public safety committee of the Birmingham City Council held a public hearing on a controversial proposal to ban smoking in all public buildings in the city. Nearly 20 residents and local business owners addressed the committee, chaired by Councilor Joel Montgomery, with roughly half the speakers in favor and half against the proposal.

The smoking ban proposal has been before the public safety committee twice previously. Loretta Herring, day-care director of Bethel Baptist Church, told the committee that she was tired of the delay and demanded that the proposal be moved out of committee to the City Council. “[The public safety committee] is just going around like a dog chasing its tail . . . cancer is so devastating . . . I was a smoker, and it’s hard for people who have been smokers to understand how devastating this dangerous disease is.” Councilor Roderick Royal, who sits on the committee, disagreed with Herring’s assessment that the committee was using delaying tactics. He explained that the law department has been studying the smoking ban proposal at the committee’s request to find a workable ordinance that is in compliance with state law. “So it’s not true that [we're] like a dog chasing its tail,” said the councilor.

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Royal, noting that he has a daughter with asthma, said that he is a cancer survivor and had no reason to delay the ordinance. “I have every reason to support a total smoking ban. But I’m not here as an individual,” said the councilor. “I’m here as a representative of the citizens of Birmingham. Some are smokers, and some are not. So I have to lay aside my personal feelings about smoking. I do not smoke, and I never have smoked, except for the time when I was in the Persian Gulf, trying to figure out whether or not I was going to get captured by the Republican Guard in the first [Gulf] war.”

Local attorney Lenora Pate, who sits on the board of the American Cancer Society, said that data and research studies show that business, sales, and revenues from bars and the hospitality industry have increased when smoking is banned indoors. “It is absolutely imperative for the workers of the next generation who work in the service industry in this city,” said Pate. “They are the ones who are vulnerably at risk for the carcinogens. More importantly, many of these are women, and the latest studies show that it is correlated with breast cancer.” As a board member, Pate met with the city law department regarding the ban. The American Cancer Society favors banning smoking in all indoor public places.

“Most of the businesses that undertake this actually have an increase in their business,” agreed Dr. Max Michael, dean of the UAB School of Public Health. “The other perspective is that we immunize our children even though our children probably don’t want to be immunized; we require ourselves to wear seatbelts; we try not to allow people to be on the streets driving drunk. These are all things we do to protect the individual and to protect the public’s health.” Local attorney Barry Marks said that “smoking in public is bad for Birmingham’s business and Birmingham’s image . . . It does not put Birmingham in a good light.” Marks noted that restaurants lose customers due to “secondhand smoke hangovers,” and added that his wife had undergone several surgical procedures as a result of “secondhand smoke.”

Henry “Bubba” Hines, owner of Bubba’s Pub, was not happy with the proposed ban: “This is not a smoker’s rights, this is a business’s right to pick and choose how he wants to do his business with legal activities . . . Let the customers decide what goes on in these bars. Let us decide, because our customers will choose if we’re going to stay in business or not stay in business.” T.C. Cannon, a former mayoral candidate and long-time owner of TC’s bar in the Lakeview district, also opposes the ban. “It is opening a big can of worms if you pass this ordinance,” said Cannon. “The American Cancer Society does great work. Their research and development have saved many lives. However, there are many carcinogenic agents, businesses, etc., that are allowed to exist . . . To restrict this to Birmingham is a definitely a grave injustice to the business owners in this city.”

David Ricker, chairman of the Freedom to Choose Committee, said, “We do not need more government control of our personal choices. I’m amazed that some politicians feel that they should treat individual citizens and business owners as infantile babies.” Ricker said that other municipalities with less stringent restrictions will draw business from Birmingham. Irene Johnson, a South Town resident, irately opposed the no-smoking ordinance. “I am opposed to this ban. I do not smoke . . . I have the choice to walk out if I go to a restaurant where there’s smoking . . . After a while you’re going to put a law on people sneezing in public because it spreads viruses! Those smokers pay taxes. It’s a disgrace they have to stand outside in the rain, smoking.”

Lawrence Fidel, president of the Alabama Restaurant Association, said that his group opposes the ordinance. “We’ve always been opposed to local smoking bans because it just seems to drive business from one sector to another. I’m not going to say that there are maybe some nonsmokers who might be attracted to come to a restaurant, but it doesn’t offset the loss of smoker business in our research and studies.” Fidel added that his organization is working with State Senator Vivian Figures, who introduced the statewide Clean Indoor Act a couple of years ago. “We are going to support legislation to ban smoking statewide in restaurants,” said Fidel. He explained that this would level the playing field by banning smoking in all bars, restaurants, private clubs, and even outdoor smoking areas adjacent to restaurants. He added that bars that function as restaurants early in the evening before becoming late night entertainment bars will “suffer greatly” because patrons will go to bars that are not declared restaurants.

“Clean air is important to me. Health is important to me,” surmised Councilor Joel Montgomery. “I do believe that people have choices in life. I do believe that business owners have rights as well.” Montgomery recommended a compromise which would exclude bars and lounges from the smoking ban. The public safety committee, with the law department’s blessing, approved the anti-smoking ordinance with the amendment. The City Council will vote on the amended smoking ban at the March 29 council meeting.

After the meeting, Montgomery said: “This is the best thing that I can come up with. And I’m still not so sure that the city is not going to end up with some type of litigation.” The councilor said he has been concerned that businesses will move to surrounding municipalities should the ban pass, and he disputes numbers that indicate an increase in business when smoking is prohibited. “Even in New York City you’ve seen a drop in business as much as 30, 40, or 50 percent. Most of it is in restaurants that have bars and lounges as part of their establishment. You can make a case for it either way . . . It is a health issue, but it is also a freedom of choice issue and a civil liberties issue, and we just have to balance it out, and it’s a tough thing to do.” In closing, Montgomery issued a caution as ominous as the surgeon general’s warning on a pack of cigarettes. “I believe that people who are proponents of this smoking ban want a prohibition on tobacco, period. From there, what’s next? I don’t think you’ve heard the last of this.” &

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