Smoke-filled workplaces, made a relic by Arkansas lawmakers in 2006, would be allowed under legislation filed by a Republican House member on Tuesday.
Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, filed House Bill 1696, which would exempt private businesses and employers from the Arkansas Clean Indoor Air Act of 2006, which bans smoking in most public buildings. Public places of employment, such as the state Capitol or a county courthouse, would still be designated as nonsmoking.
The legislation comes as another cohort of lawmakers -- 16 Republicans and four Democrats -- have signed onto a proposal to raise the state's smoking age to 21. In Little Rock, a coalition of activists and health care professionals have been pushing the city's Board of Directors for two years to pass an ordinance removing lingering exemptions to the 2006 law that allow smoking in certain bars and restaurants.
"It's not an opportune time to be weakening tobacco laws," said David Oberembt, the Arkansas government relations director for the American Heart Association.
A recent "epidemic" in vaping, or electronic cigarette use, by U.S. teens as declared by the U.S. surgeon general has brought renewed focus to the issue of smoking, Oberembt said. Arkansas already has the third highest rate of youth cigarette use, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and smoking among adults is above the national average. The CDC estimated that about 24 percent of adult Arkansans smoked cigarettes in 2016.
Even Gonzales, the bill's sponsor, said he was not aware of any workplaces that want to allow smoking. He said the bill developed out of concern for property rights, rather than a request from a constituent.
"I don't know if people would choose to, but it's an option people should have," Gonzales said of business owners.
Arkansas is one of 34 states that ban smoking in both public and private workplaces, according to the CDC, which advocates for indoor smoking bans as "the only way to fully protect nonsmokers from exposure to secondhand smoke."
Secondhand smoke causes 41,000 deaths among nonsmokers annually in the U.S., according to the CDC.
In addition to restaurants and bars that serve only people over the age of 21, the Clean Indoor Air Act already exempts hotels that have designated smoking rooms, long-term care facilities with designated smoking areas and businesses with fewer than three employees. HB1696 would remove all those exemptions from law, and replace them with language allowing the owner of a business to decide whether to allow smoking.
Gonzales said he did not dispute that the bill could lead to an increase in health problems caused by secondhand smoke, but he said that employees could simply choose not to work somewhere that allows smoking.
The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce has not reviewed or taken a position on the bill, President Randy Zook said Tuesday. Zook offered that it may be a bygone notion that a business owner would have the desire to allow smoking.
"I can't imagine anyone would choose to do that," Zook said. "We've kind of moved past that."
The 2006 effort to ban smoking in workplaces was championed by a former governor, Mike Huckabee, in the last year of his administration. At the time, lawmakers estimated that three-quarters of workplaces in the state were smoke-free.
The current governor, Republican Asa Hutchinson, had not reviewed the legislation Tuesday, a spokesman said.
Metro on 03/06/2019
Print Headline: Bill filed to lighten state smoking ban