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Published: 8/30/2004

Michigan counties fight smoking

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

As Lenawee County tries to become the state's fifth county to pass a no-smoking ordinance in the workplace, efforts are building in Michigan to make the state more smoke-free.

But opponents of smoking say the task remains difficult.

"We've got a long way to go yet," said Jim Bergman of the Smoke Free Environment Law Project in Ann Arbor.

In Lenawee, county health board officials earlier this month voted 5-0 to pursue an ordinance that would ban smoking in all county workplaces. Officials there said it could take six months to two years to get the county's board of commissioners to pass such an ordinance.

"We want to protect workers from the risk of secondhand smoke," said Susie Reitbaurer, health educator at the county's health department, which helped spark the initiative.

If it is approved, Lenawee would join Genesee, Chippewa, Washtenaw, and Ingham counties on the list of counties that have passed such ordinances.

Wayne County's board of commissioners passed a no-smoking ordinance last year, but the county's chief executive, Robert Ficano, vetoed the measure.

Mr. Ficano did not return a phone call seeking comment. But Commissioner Bernard Parker, who supported the law, said Mr. Ficano thought the fines were too harsh - penalties of up to $500 and possible jail time - and wanted to give companies the opportunity to build separately ventilated rooms for smoking.

Mr. Parker said after months of negotiating, county officials have reached a compromise and that a lesser measure will go into effect next month.

Under the new measure, which was passed by the county's health department rather than the county commission, fines were significantly reduced and companies may build smoking rooms. Also, a previous stipulation that the workers could not smoke within 50 feet of building entrances was eliminated.

More significant, according to Mr. Parker, the city of Detroit no longer is included in the measure because the city has its own health department that would have to act on the matter.

"When [the commission] voted on it, it was a law that impacted the entire county. Now it's an ordinance," he said.

None of the county measures prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants, like the ordinance passed in Toledo last year.

The city of Marquette in 1998 passed a no-smoking ordinance for workplaces and later tried to expand it to include bars and restaurants, but the measure was challenged by the state's restaurant association, which cited an existing state law prohibiting such action. The law allows restaurant owners and bars that serve food to keep up to 75 percent of their space for smokers.

The restaurant association won the case.

"Basically, [the no-smoking opponents] are saying the sky will fall if you pass these things and, basically, it hasn't happened. We've had no enforcement problems here," said George Sedlacek, director of community health for the Marquette County Health Department.

Mr. Sedlack said that although city workplaces are smoke-free, the county commission earlier this year in a 5-4 vote declined to enact a similar measure.

Mr. Bergman conceded Michigan is behind other states in the rapidly accelerating no-smoking movement. He said if enough counties pass no-smoking ordinances, state legislators will be forced to take notice. The end goal, he said, is to have the law prohibiting no-smoking ordinances for bars and restaurants repealed.

"At this point, there clearly are some philosophical and other opposition in the legislature to passing laws that can make the environment smoke-free. It will take a while for that to change," he said.

Mr. Bergman said that with the number of smokers in the state declining - currently at 24 percent - and public opinion polls strongly favoring the no-smoking movement, the no-smoking initiative in Michigan should gain steam in the next few years.

Dudley Spade, a Lenawee County Democrat running for state representative in the 57th district, said he's aware of the no-smoking movement but said he has not decided whether he would support a statewide initiative. "It's an important health issue, but before I commit I would like to see what the public thinks, " he said.

Mr. Sedlacek said the benefits in Marquette, where the no-smoking workplace initiative is in its seventh year, have been significant. The smoking population has dropped from 24 to 19 percent in the period, one of the lowest percentages in the state.

"Twenty years ago, we had one of the highest, so we flip-flopped, " he said.

Contact George J. Tanber at: gtanber@theblade.com or 734-241-3610.



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