Two years after Washington’s strictest-in-the-nation smoking ban left local bar owners and patrons fuming mad, resistance apparently has disappeared in a puff of acceptance.
Complaints to the Spokane Regional Health District’s smoking hotline have plummeted, falling 82 percent from 270 in 2006 to 49 so far this year. That includes a decline in complaints about smoking indoors from 183 to 40 and complaints about smoking too near a doorway from 170 to four, district records showed.
At the same time, the number of violations and warnings has plunged 95 percent and the number of enforcement actions – mostly inspections, re-inspections and about a dozen fines – has fallen by nearly 100 percent. In 2006, for instance, there were 640 enforcement actions. So far in 2007? Only three.
Health officials credit several factors for the dramatic change: shifting social values; a pent-up demand for smoke-free restaurants, bars and other venues; and aggressive monitoring that included court action against five violators who did not comply.
“I feel like in our county we took a real proactive approach to enforcement,” said Scott Roy, the health district’s tobacco program coordinator.
By any measure, Roy said, Washington’s 2005 expansion of the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act was a resounding success. It banned smoking in places exempt from the original act, including restaurants, bars, taverns, bowling alleys, skating rinks and card rooms. It also prohibited smoking within 25 feet of business entrances.
At the time, bar owners and smokers across the state bitterly opposed the move, which voters approved by a 2-to-1 margin in November 2005.
Today, though, even staunch foes say they’re living with the law just fine. Peggy Jones, a manager at the Mayfair Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge in Spokane says business is better now than it had been. She can’t tell whether it’s because of the smoking ban – or because Mayfair owners remodeled the joint and hired new bartenders.
“We have gotten a lot of new customers, but the old ones don’t come,” said Jones.
Jones, a 64-year-old smoker, says she doesn’t mind the ban, although she thought snuffing cigarettes in bars went too far. She was more upset about government officials mandating how small businesses should operate.
“The government shouldn’t have that power, even for health-related issues,” she said.
Health officials, however, say the action helped turn more smokers toward help. More than 1,500 people called the state’s tobacco quit line in 2006, with about one in 10 callers reporting they were inspired by the new law.
State figures have shown Washington’s smoking rate is steadily declining. In 2005, it was 17.8 percent, the fifth-lowest rate in the nation, down from more than 22 percent in 1999.
Tobacco prevention advocates admit they can’t be sure the drop in complaints and ensuing enforcements is entirely due to improved compliance. Media attention about the issue dropped off after the law was enacted, and many of the early warnings focused simply on getting businesses to erect signs. Once the signs were up, the warnings stopped, Roy said.
Still, health officials said they’re confident that indoor smoking is significantly down and that outdoor smoking is kept more or less away from entrances.
“Our inside smoking rates are great,” Roy said. “People aren’t smoking inside, or if they are, we aren’t hearing about it.”
State health officials said they’ve seen similar declines in complaints and warnings, although no aggregate data are available.
“I think people are seeing how great it is to walk into taverns and bars and bowling alleys and how great it is to have it be smoke-free,” said Tim Church, a spokesman for the state Department of Health. “Smoking indoors is not even a topic of discussion.”
That represents quite a shift in public thinking, noted Mary Selecky, Washington’s Secretary of Health. She recalls public health meetings in the 1970s where everybody smoked. There may have been initial resistance to the new law, she said, but she reminded Eastern Washington residents that they, too, voted for the ban.
“The general public in this state has said, ‘We don’t want to be around smoke,’ ” she added.