VANDERBURGH COUNTY — The prospect of the Vanderburgh County Commissioners once again approving a comprehensive smoking ban, improved significantly earlier this month when Marsha Abell defeated incumbent commissioner Troy Tornatta.
"Studies (by) the Department of Commerce have shown that companies are more likely to relocate to communities that are smoke-free," said Abell, who attended a forum hosted Friday by Smokefree Communities at Deaconess Hospital.
Any county ban would not have jurisdiction inside the Evansville city limits, but Martha Caine, executive director of Smokefree Communities of Vanderburgh County, said she hopes the city will follow the county's lead if Abell can be successful.
"We might be able, once the county does this, to come back with a comprehensive ordinance," she said after Friday's forum. "That's our hope."
City Councilman H. Dan Adams proposed a measure in March that would have extended the city's ban on smoking in public places to include bars, but it failed to pass.
Under the current city ordinance, smoking is allowed in bars and taverns and in restaurants in designated areas as long as no one under 18 is allowed in that area. In addition, that section is required to be separated from the rest of the restaurant by a wall with a passageway no wider than five feet.
The county passed a comprehensive ban in 2006, but "sunset exemptions" were given until 2009. As they were set to expire, the commission, with Tornatta at the helm, chose to exclude those places with exemptions from the new rules. Instead, the county's current ordinance mirrors the city's. Caine said because these smoking rules are in place, many in the community are unaware of the need for stronger rules because it does not affect them on a regular basis.
"A lot of people think that there is no smoking (anywhere), and those are usually people who don't go to bars. ... Those people (sometimes) think, because they heard we enacted a law, that everyone's protected, when in fact they're not."
Speakers at Friday's forum, which included Deaconess Health System CEO Linda White, the owner of a local sports bar, state and regional lobbyists and a local musician and a University of Southern Indiana student, chastised the current law for not going far enough in protecting the public.
Paul Hoskins, owner of Main Gate Sports Bar, admitted he thinks he has lost some revenue because he decided to open as a smoke-free sports bar, citing the culture of the 21- to 30-year-old demographic that seems to embrace smoking. He didn't have a specific estimate, but he said if every bar was forced to go smoke-free, it would certainly help his bottom line.
Caine said part of the reason the city ban didn't pass earlier this year is because it provided too many exceptions — including one for Casino Aztar — to provide a "level playing field."
Surprisingly though, Hoskins said, customers who are smokers tell him they enjoy coming to Main Gate.
One of the panelists, Buffy McKinney, who works for the American Heart Association in St. Louis, shared the emotional story of her mother who died recently of lung cancer. McKinney said her mother didn't smoke. The culprit was 25 years of inhaling secondhand smoke from gamblers at her job at a Las Vegas casino, McKinney said.
"My mother will come back and haunt me if I don't do anything about it," she said.
Twenty-three states, including Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, have passed legislation banning smoking in public places. Combined with Kentucky's two largest cities' — Louisville and Lexington — approval of comprehensive bans, Friday's panelists said, Indiana is behind the times.
"Indiana is officially an island of smoke," said Lindsay Grace of the American Lung Association. It's takes a lot of local laws to be in place before we reach that tipping point so that politicians have the political will at the state level, she said.
It appears now the state Legislature will at least consider a comprehensive ban when it meets next year. Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, for the fourth year in a row, has filed a bill addressing the issue.
The bill has passed the House before, but it has never received a hearing in the Senate. Panelists said Vanderburgh County needs to pass stronger legislation to show lawmakers that Hoosiers are at the "tipping point" to support such a measure.
Grace said, "(You) shouldn't just punt this to the Statehouse, because they'll just punt it back, and nothing will get done."