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Nationwide, More Are Saying: `Thank You for Not Smoking'

April 23, 2006|Jamie Kizzire and Mike Stobbe | Associated Press Writers

LUVERNE, Ala. — If New York City can ban smoking in bars and restaurants, why not Luverne?

"We don't see why a small rural town can't do the same thing," said Al Snellgrove, a former Luverne councilman who helped enact the ban last year.

The town's residents adapted, said Mark Grant, a smoker who owns Luverne's Our House restaurant. He's had to tell only a couple of people, both of them visitors, to put out their smokes.

Some locals still grumble. "It's a small community," Grant said. "They've got to have something to complain about."

Love them or hate them, smoking bans are popping up all over. Last year, five states and 82 towns, cities and counties approved smoking bans, according to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, a California-based nonprofit considered to have the best data on the issue.

Seventeen states have no-smoking laws in effect, as do 461 towns, cities and counties elsewhere. The latest state to join the trend was New Jersey, with a law that took effect April 15. That means it's now illegal to smoke in about 43% of U.S. bars, restaurants and workplaces. At many other job sites, employers have voluntarily barred smoking in enclosed spaces.

Public health advocates are pleased not just by the volume of bans, but by the geographic diversity. Legislating towns include Sitka, Alaska; Laramie, Wyo.; Victoria, Texas; Sulphur, La.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Gainesville, Ga.; and Timnath, Colo. (population 223).

In Alabama, bans took effect last year in Birmingham, Cottonwood, Headland and Luverne. Citronelle instituted a ban last month; Opelika has one starting next month.

"It's the trend, and we've caught the train," said Barry Riddle, tobacco prevention coordinator for the Alabama Department of Public Health.

It's more than a trend, said Peter Jacobson, a University of Michigan professor of health law and policy. "In the Deep South, states traditionally have not welcomed this kind of regulation," he said. "This suggests to me that all the tobacco-control efforts made in the last two decades have permeated and changed the culture."

Thousands of ordinances across the country call for nonsmoking areas or other restrictions. But tobacco-control advocates and public health officials prefer total bans.

"Separate sections of the same room are much less effective in protecting nonsmokers from exposure," said Terry Pechacek, senior scientist for tobacco-related issues at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smoking bans are believed to be the primary reason that studies show a big drop in chemical measures of tobacco smoke exposure in nonsmokers. Health officials believe -- and are trying to prove -- that lung cancer cases in nonsmokers have gone down too, Pechacek said.

Full-scale smoking bans began popping up in 1990, mainly in California. Gradually, cities and counties in a few other states joined the list, many in Massachusetts. Then, in 2002, Delaware banned smoking in all workplaces, bars, restaurants and even the state's three "racinos" -- racetracks that have slot machines.

"What happened in Delaware was really critical," a tough statewide ban in the middle of the East Coast, said Daniel Smith, the American Cancer Society's national vice president for government relations.

In 2003, local smoking bans ballooned by 62. Two of the new bans proved extremely influential, tobacco-control advocates said. One was New York City; the second, Lexington, Ky.,

"Lexington was kind of a 'shot heard round the world,' " a complete ban of smoking in bars and restaurants in a city in the heart of tobacco country, said Bronson Frick of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.

And New York? It is perhaps the country's most blunt-spoken, culturally diverse, politically challenging city, Smith said. "If something can be done in New York, it can be done anywhere."

Luverne is on a highway that connects Alabama's state capital to Gulf Coast beaches. Many of the town's residents -- about 2,600 -- are retirees who don't smoke, Grant said.

The ban was triggered not by national trends, but by townspeople fuming about smoke in local cafes, Snellgrove said.

"It just got very difficult to enjoy a meal, and then you hear it from people at church, school and on the street," he said.

Sitting on a bench downtown outside Crenshaw County Hardware, Johnny Jones, 50, voiced his approval of the ban. "I love it," said Jones, who manages the store and also is a minister.

Attorney Charles Kettler, 72, said the ban was no big deal. He comes from a family of smokers, but dropped the habit years ago.

"I grew out of it," he said.

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