Michigan breathing in a smoking ban

By Kyle Melinn

It’s not a question of “if” anymore. A cigarette smoking ban for Michigan bars and restaurants is coming. The only questions are “when” and “to what extent.”

That prognostication comes from state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, who has the power to snuff out such a move, but made it clear to reporters last week that he will not do so.

Too many constituents have bent his ear. Too many other states, cities and countries have done it or are doing it, he said. Besides, he and his young son are allergic to the smoke, even though he insists that has nothing to do with his stance.

A ban could come as soon as this week. It could come this month. It could come next year. It may even end up on the 2010 ballot if legislators don’t act by then.

The flap continues over how the ban should be structured. Bishop is OK with banning indoor cigarette smoking from every establishment in Michigan. In fact, he allowed a bill that does exactly that to pass his chamber.

But something that sweeping isn’t passing the Michigan House. Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, has already tried. At least twice this year, actually.

Detroit representatives are convinced that banning smoking will kill business at its three casinos like it has in Colorado and Illinois. The foot traffic in those states is wafting to the sovereign American Indian-run casinos, where such state restrictions don’t apply.

Combine their opposition with those seeking carve-outs for cigar shops, veteran halls and bars that don’t sell much food and the best a complete smoking ban does in the House is 50 votes. A bill needs 56 votes to pass.

But if Dillon loads up a smoking bill with too many exemptions, he starts losing some of his own Democratic members who want a ban as “clean” as the air they want to be breathing. One idea was to pass a complete ban today and come back with the exemptions next session, but the Detroiters don’t like their odds with that type of gamble.

Dillon’s latest idea is to push a concept Bishop suggested earlier this year that would ban smoking statewide, except for those particular establishments that want to pay a special registration fee to allow it.

Again, this solves Dillon’s Detroit problem, but does he lose organized labor’s support in the process? The unions want clean air for their employees, not necessarily the patrons, and they hold a lot of sway with Democrat lawmakers. Also, Michigan would be paving new ground with such a concept, not to mention the whole new layer of costly state administrative oversight created in the process.

And then would the Senate even bother taking it up? Bishop said he wanted his lame duck agenda limited to job-creating items only. Does flicking smoking from bars and restaurants fall into that category?

In the meantime, Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration is lighting a fire under the legislature. Her public health director sent a letter to all state legislators today urging immediate action on the issue.

Granholm has supported smoke-free legislation for years. Lt. Gov. John Cherry told me years ago that he, too, sees an anti-smoking law as inevitable even if Granholm has gone to Washington when the Legislature gets around to passing something. And he’s a smoker.

The public is already sold. Polls consistently have a smoking ban in Michigan around the 60-to-70 percent mark, making a ballot proposal an easy sell if it comes to that, and advocates indicate they would go that route, if necessary.

The evidence is mounting on their side. Within the past year, both Public Sector Consultants and Grand Valley State University have conducted studies that show creating smoke-free environments in restaurants and bars are likely to help, rather than hurt business.

Meanwhile, more and more bar patrons are tired of coming home with stinky clothes. More and more are tired of having to choose between eating at a favorite watering hole and not subjecting their children or older parents to a Group A carcinogen, with 69 known cancer-causing substances.

A few restaurant owners are seeing the smoke rings floating over the Capitol dome. They’re snuffing out smoking as a pre-emptive move. But until Michigan completely inhales a new law that sets a common standard, this is one movement that isn’t burning out.

(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Email melinn@lansingcitypulse.com.)