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Kansas gov boosts smoking ban but hurdles remain

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas’ governor has given a boost to an ongoing campaign for a statewide smoking ban, but supporters still have to overcome the opposition — and perhaps ingenuity — of business owners like Sharon Suwalski.

After Topeka banned smoking last year in bars and restaurants but not tobacco shops, Suwalski and her husband laid down blue tape to separate his tobacco counter from her bar inside their Hot Pockets billiard hall. She said Thursday that the tape also should allow customers inside the tobacco shop’s designated area to smoke under proposals before the Legislature.

Gov. Mark Parkinson lifted public health advocates’ hopes by declaring in his annual State of the State address that he wants a strong statewide ban on smoking in public places. Two such proposals passed the Senate last year; both await a House vote.

They face criticism from some business owners and state residents who see a ban as too much meddling in their lives. Suwalski watched Parkinson’s speech on television and remembered thinking, “He’s crazy.”

“There are places where people expect to be able to smoke,” she said. “If they can’t smoke in here, I’m not going to have any customers.”

Kansas legislators have seriously considered statewide rules on smoking for the past five years as local governments have enacted ordinances. Three counties and 36 cities have imposed limits on smoking in public places, and their restrictions apply to 55 percent of the state’s population.

Supporters of a statewide ban view it as a public health measure that will protect Kansas residents — particularly workers — from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. They were pleased with Parkinson’s endorsement, though he wasn’t specific about the details of a ban.

“He wants a bill that’s written from a public health perspective,” said Mary Jayne Hellebust, lobbyist for the Tobacco Free Kansas Coalition.

Twenty-four states ban smoking in restaurants and bars, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Parkinson noted in his address that North Carolina joined the list this year.

“If North Carolina, the largest tobacco-producing state in the country, can enact a public smoking ban, surely we can do it in Kansas,” Parkinson said. “I don’t want to see a watered-down public smoking ban, one that’s written by the tobacco industry and full of loopholes that isn’t a real ban.”

Both bills before the Legislature would exempt tobacco shops from a ban, as the Topeka ordinance does. In Hot Pockets, the thin, blue line of tape runs over gray carpet and down the center of tables as it outlines a cozy, 10-foot-by-10-foot square for the tobacco shop. The bar is outside the line, but only a short toss of a peanut away.

Suwalski acknowledged she wouldn’t oppose a state law if it exempted both bars and tobacco shops. But Tom Jacob, owner of the Cigar Chateau in Wichita, said the state should leave such decisions to local governments, which can work out compromises with local businesses.

Some Kansas residents don’t want even local governments to impose restrictions.

“I am just really fed up with government kind of encroaching on everybody’s personal rights and their freedoms,” said Gail Trembley, a smoker and Topeka resident who’s leading a campaign to repeal that city’s ordinance.

But advocates of statewide restrictions argue that most Kansas want public places to be smoke-free and that workers in bars and restaurants have a right to clean air. They believe Parkinson’s support will help.

“He is obviously looking for a good bill,” Hellebust said. “That certainly would favor public health advocates.”