Smoking ban remains stuck in committee

Sen. Peter Micciche during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the governor's budget.

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) — A popular bill that would bar smoking almost everywhere in Alaska has been stuck in the House Rules Committee since January, and there’s no indication why.

Half the House has signed on as cosponsors of the bill, Senate Bill 63, which passed the Senate last year 15-5. The author of the bill, Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said he heard that the House committee was holding up the bill as a negotiating ploy, but he didn’t plan on taking the bait if that is what’s happening.

The bill would ban smoking or vaping in just about every enclosed space in Alaska except for homes. The ban would include a company vehicle shared by employees, hotel and motel rooms, and health facilities. It would also restrict smoking outdoors where smoke could drift into a workplace, or be sucked into a building or some boats by a fan.

About half the population of Alaska already lives under smoking bans, like the ones in Anchorage, Juneau or Bethel, but the bill would extend those measures everywhere, according to Marge Stoneking, the director of the American Lung Association in Alaska. Stoneking was in the Capitol Wednesday with other officials from clean-air organizations and citizen lobbyists who are trying to pry the bill loose.

The bill passed the Senate on March 27, 2017, with opposition coming from five Republicans, most of whom generally take libertarian stands — John Coghill, Mike Dunleavy, Shelley Hughes, Pete Kelly and Bert Stedman. It then sailed through two House committees, Community & Regional Affairs and Judiciary, picking up co-sponsors as it went. It now has 20 co-sponsors in the 40-member body. Twelve are Democrats, six are Republicans, and two are independents.

Rules chairwoman Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, won’t say why she’s holding the bill. She declined a request for an interview and the clean-air lobbyists said they were unable to meet with her.

Micciche said in an interview that he’s heard she wants to leverage the bill for something else, but he said he won’t negotiate.

“I’m not willing to trade,” he said. “I don’t believe that should ever happen in this building — good legislation should stand on its own merit.”

Micciche said that once the bill passed the Senate, there’s no reason for him to worry about it.

“It’s now in the House’s hands and we are prioritizing passing and funding a budget. If there’s time left for other bills, we hope to get to that, but I’m not trading anything for that bill,” he said. “We know we have the support in the House. If it’s placed on the floor and passes, that is a good thing for Alaskan employees.”

Dr. John Yordy, a Palmer oncologist and one of the citizen lobbyists in Juneau Wednesday, said the bill remains a top priority for him.

“It’s simply to prevent exposure to second-hand smoke by those who don’t smoke,” he said in an interview. “It’s a fundamental human right to be able to breathe clean air, to breathe smoke-free air.”

Yordy said that a few bars and restaurants in Anchorage chose to go smoke free even before it was mandated by city law. While some owners expressed concern that a smoking ban would drive away customers, Club Paris, the first establishment to voluntarily stop smoking, saw business grow from non-smokers, he said.

“We know that second-hand smoke definitely causes secondary diseases — cancer, heart disease, lung disease, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), asthma — and there’s no level of safe second-hand smoke,” Yordy said. “We need to create a completely smoke-free environment for all workers.”

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