“I think everyone agrees smoking is bad and you shouldn’t breathe it, and you shouldn’t breathe second-hand smoke,” she said.
The only reason towns and cities don’t move on the issue is the fact that they don’t understand it is a health issue, Altermatt said. That should dominate the discussion, in her view.
Preventing smoking does not hurt businesses economically, Altermatt said, although it is difficult for some business owners to realize that. She said statistics she has read indicate that less than 18 percent of the people who live in Park County smoke, and many of them do not want to do business in a place where smoking is allowed.
“The problem isn’t even smokers. Most want to quit,” Altermatt said. “The problem is business-rights people who don’t understand the health issue.“
She said while she is prohibited form lobbying, since her position is paid with government dollars, she can educate and advocate for a smoking ban. She did so during an at-times fiery discussion that lasted nearly 30 minutes.
In a one-page document she provided to the council, she listed reasons why a smoke-free ordinance should be passed:
• It is the most effective way to encourage smokers to quit.
• It lowers youth initiation — kids who grow up in smoke-free communities start smoking at a much lower rate than in communities where public smoking is allowed.
• It raises community health standings, which may help boost population. People investigate these standings when looking to move into a community.
More than 25 communities have smoke-free laws in Wyoming, including Cheyenne, Burlington, Evanston, Green River, Teton County and Laramie. Many other communities are looking to pass smoke-free policies at the local level, Altermatt said.
In the end, the council agreed to issue a letter, on city letterhead, to bars, restaurants, motels and other potentially impacted businesses, to ask business owners their thoughts on a proposed ban. No action is planned for some time, the city leaders said, but a community discussion on the issue is needed.
Mayor Don Hillman said if he had his way, there would be no ordinance passed on the issue.
“I would much rather see the local business owner do this on their own,” Hillman said.
He said he has a problem with government telling businesses and people how to run their lives, and Councilman Jim Hillberry, who missed the start of the meeting and the first half of the discussion, agreed with that assertion.
“That’s not the American way,” Hillberry said. “That’s not free enterprise. Let them make that choice.”
Altermatt said she likes businesses that decide to ban smoking on their own, “but a law is even better.” She said a ban would not prevent people from smoking outside the businesses, in parks or other open spaces, or on their own property.
“I’m saying smoke in a way that doesn’t hurt other people,” she said.
The impact on bars, which may be struggling to keep their doors open, should be recognized, Hillman said. But Altermatt said that argument is raised in every city where a smoking ban is discussed, and it never proves to be true. According to her group’s website, “each and every study coming out is confirming what we already know — smoke-free ordinances do not harm business.”
She said only studies commissioned or supported by the tobacco industry have shown a negative impact.
Councilman Josh Shorb said he feels the majority of people in Powell would “slap us on the back” and support such a ban. Shorb said he wants to hear from people on the issue before the council acts.
Councilman Myron Heny said he “can live with” a smoking ban after hearing from business owners and the public. He said a letter to businesses asking for their input may be a good start.
Councilman John Wetzel said if an ordinance is passed, it would treat all bars and restaurants the same. Encouraging them to do so on their own would mean some would allow smoking while others banned it, and that may create unfair advantages.
Hillman said businesses should be asked to sign a letter supporting a ban. If that was produced, the council would feel more comfortable moving forward.
Altermatt said she doubted business owners, even ones that privately support outlawing smoking, would put their name on such a document. In addition, she told the council public health was a council matter, not a decision for private businesses to make on an individual basis.
Heny and Shorb said they would like to hear from bar owners. Altermatt said not to worry about that — once it becomes publicly known, they will pack the council chambers.
She said they will make the same case: It’s a business rights issue. She said she strongly disagrees with that.
“The bottom line is, do you have a right to make someone else sick?” Altermatt said.
She said if a bar was filled with asbestos or some other toxic substance, it would be shut down. A smoking ban is different is because some people are addicted to tobacco.
“That’s the only reason it’s such a tricky issue,” Altermatt said.
Councilman Eric Paul said he and his wife don’t go out to public places where smoking is allowed because they cannot stand smoke. But at the same time, Paul said he was wary of banning people from engaging in behavior that is a personal choice.
He said he has talked with business owners who told him their business has gone up once they banned smoking. Altermatt said “there is no negative” for businesses, and some are willing to ban smoking.
“They don’t want to be the bad guys to their customers,“ Altermatt said. “They’d much rather blame it on the City Council.”
That drew laughter from the city officials, who said that was a sentiment they had heard before. Altermatt reminded them they also had an obligation to promote public health.
She said banning smoking would alter the social norm and encourage people not to smoke. Altermatt compared it to the introduction of mandatory use of seat belts, which was controversial at first but now is routinely accepted.