BISMARCK, ND — Tavern owners and hospitality professionals earlier this year defeated a proposed statewide ban on smoking in North Dakota bars. In early February, the measure failed by a vote of 30 to 15 on the floor of the state senate.
It was the second time in two years this particular coalition has fought and won virtually the same battle. The state’s workplace smoking ban, passed in 2005, contained no tavern exemption when first proposed. The coalition succeeded in getting the current exemption included at the time of its original passage.
Operators said they anticipate fighting a nearly identical battle to preserve smoking in bars two years from now, when the next session of the state legislature convenes.
Allied in this ongoing effort to defend smokers’ rights are the North Dakota Coin Machine Operators Association, the North Dakota Coin And Tavern Association, the North Dakota Hospitality Association and the North Dakota Tournament Association, promoters of pool and darts.
The president of NDCMOA is Rick LaFleur of IF LaFleur & Sons Inc. (Devils Lake, ND); its executive director is former operator Dwight Wrangham (R-8th District), who was elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives in 2000. Some members of the operator association also serve on the tavern association’s board.
LaFleur and Wrangham said the coalition employed unusual strategy, tactics and messages that smoking opponents did not anticipate – and found it difficult to combat. Operators and bar owners presented themselves as anti-tobacco but pro-smoker and as pro-health but anti-regulation.
Wrangham coined the slogan, “We are not pro-smoking; we are pro-smoker.” In its ongoing lobbying campaign, NDCMOA portrays smokers as addicts of nicotine who deserve compassion and require assistance to kick the habit. NDCMOA and NDCAT argued that in the meantime, smokers need public venues where they can congregate.
“Smoking is a crisis for everyone involved, and that definitely includes the smokers themselves,” LaFleur said in a recent interview with VT.
“Many smokers are miserable because they would like to quit and can’t,” he said. “We tried to figure out, how can we help them? How do we rise above simply smearing the character of smokers, which has been the public approach to this issue so far? How do we provide true help and education?”
NDCMOA came up with surprising answers to these questions – answers that seemed to disarm smoking opponents in many cases.
First, “We will not stand in the way if anyone wants to outlaw tobacco,” said LaFleur. Indeed, NDCMOA positioned itself as a strong opponent of Big Tobacco on January 15, 2007, when Rep. Wrangham introduced a bill (HB 1410) to regulate and steadily reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes sold in the state.
In a supporting guest editorial published January 30 in a Fargo, ND, newspaper, LaFleur charged that tobacco companies have intentionally spiked nicotine levels in cigarettes in recent years, and have altered cigarette design to make nicotine delivery more effective. He cited a recent study by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Deptartment of Health.
LaFleur pointedly wondered why no state health department and district health officials endorsed the nicotine freeze proposal, and why none showed up to testify in favor of HB 1410. His guest editorial was titled, “Companies spike nicotine levels, but regulators sit on their hands.”
The clear implication was that cigarette manufacturers have sought to foster greater addiction by smokers.
Two days after LaFleur’s guest editorial appeared, the Fargo paper published a rebuttal by John Nelson, operations and technology president of R.J. Reynolds. Nelson flatly denied that the company had engaged in manipulation of nicotine levels.
Nelson’s denial worked in NDCMOA’s favor. Coalition members were able to exhibit Nelson’s letter as proof that hospitality and amusement industry professionals were not on Big Tobacco’s side.
Similarly, when anti-smoking activists charged that NDCMOA and its allies were funded by tobacco companies, the coalition refuted that claim as well.
Instead, LaFleur and Wrangham turned the tables on smoking opponents, who claimed that illness associated with smoking results in hundreds of millions in medical expenditures and decreased productivity for private enterprise in the state.
“When doctors talk about these costs,” said LaFleur, “We ask, ‘What about affordable healthcare?’”
Coalition members also point out that cigarette sales yield a reported $20 million in annual taxes to the state. While LaFleur does not say so outright, observers may wonder if government officials refuse to ban tobacco sales outright because resulting revenues are too lucrative and would be too difficult to replace. Lawmakers in many other states have openly admitted as much.
NDCMOA and its allies also called on the state to stop wasting money on “attack ads” that target smokers, and to devote those public funds to educational campaigns aimed at preventing youngsters from starting smoking, and at advising current smokers how they can find help if they want to quit.
When the bar smoking ban proposal came up for a hearing in January before the senate judiciary committee, operators and their associates were ready with still more ammunition. NDCAT had commissioned DH Research, the state’s most respected public opinion research firm, to poll bar owners and lawmakers about their attitudes on the smoking issue.
According to NDCMOA and NDCAT, the comprehensive survey polled more than half the owners of North Dakota bars where alcohol sales, not food, accounted for more than 50% of revenue. Responding tavern owners were virtually unanimous (97.22%) in their belief that individual business owners should have the right to decide whether or not to permit smoking.
Most bars said half or three-quarters of their customers smoke. Significantly, nearly 75% said they expected a smoking ban in bars to have a “very negative impact” on their businesses.
Most tavern owners (90.56%) said revenue would decrease if the state’s smoking ban were extended to bars. Of these 326 bar owners, nearly two-thirds anticipated earnings would plummet 50% to 74%.
Virtually all (98.65%) of the legislators agreed smoking is addictive; only one lawmaker disagreed. Yet the survey also showed 75% of lawmakers did not agree with banning tobacco sales and use entirely.
LaFleur said the coalition’s presentation of these statistics had a strong impact on lawmakers when the allies testified before the senate committee. “Our major message was to stress that we don’t need more Big Brother,” he said. “We need individual choice and responsibility, along with a more constructive public policy that treats smokers as victims, not villains.”
NDCAT emphasized the “choice” theme by posting warning signs on the doors of members’ bars that said: “This is a Smoking Bar. Patrons May Be Smoking Inside. If you think second hand smoke is a hazard to your health, you should not enter.” The coalition repeatedly reminded officials that bar patrons must be 18 to enter and that anyone who does enter does so voluntarily.
Today LaFleur continues to build bridges to lawmakers, realizing the coalition will need strong relationships to defeat a possible smoking ban in 2009.
“Our state legislature is made up of fine Midwesterners with solid values,” he said. “Even those who disagreed with us offered the courtesy of telling us where they stood, and listened to our point of view. The chairman of senate judiciary committee, Sen. David Nething (R-Jamestown) ran the fairest hearing I have ever seen. When he was complimented on his even-handedness, he said, ‘That’s what we do here.’ Our success has a great deal to do with the access you can achieve in a small state.”
Wrangham concluded, “We spent a lot of time to come up with what we felt was a responsible solution to a real crisis. We enjoy a strong web of grassroots out there, including a natural alliance with tavern owners. If we farm these roots and give our allies the tools they need, we can be very effective.”