No-smoking backers to be anonymous

Monday, January 31, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:39 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

Local business owners can throw their support behind a proposed no-smoking ordinance for Columbia. They just can’t expect to know who those supporters are.

The Boone County Coalition for Tobacco Concerns is quietly circulating a letter of support, asking area business leaders to endorse the measure. That support, though, is strictly behind the scenes.

“NOT FOR PUBLIC RELEASE,” reads the undated letter, which is in the form of a contract. “This information is for the Board of Health and City Council ONLY!”

The coalition has been passing out the letters on an individual basis rather than as part of a mass mailing. Lara Sansing, who is in charge of education and planning for the coalition, said that the individual delivery allowed the group to speak with each business owner.

Sansing said the decision to keep the identities of ordinance supporters under wraps was designed to win over hesitant supporters. Some businesses are afraid of losing customers if they openly support the ordinance, she said.

“There are a lot more people that are supportive of this than are actually comfortable saying they are,” Sansing said. “Our purpose in those letters (is) to get members of the business community who support this effort to have a chance to let their voice be heard.”

The coalition hopes this effort will show elected officials that the measure has the support of those with significant economic interests at stake, said Kim Waters, a coalition leader.

“(It is) obviously a concern to the City Council,” Waters said. “It’s a public health issue, but everyone else is concerned about the businesses and the ramifications there.”

The letter contains eight statements explaining the hazards of secondhand smoke and the status of no-smoking ordinances in other parts of the country.

But business owners may want to examine at least one of the statements a little more closely before deciding to sign.

The letter’s second statement cites a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic that says 53,000 nonsmoking Americans die each year as a result of secondhand smoke. But the latest information from CDC estimates the number of such deaths at 38,000, of which 3,000 are due to lung cancer and the remaining 35,000 from heart disease.

That number is not definitive, said Joel London, a spokesman with CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health.

“We report at the very low end of the range,” he said. “Our numbers are actually underestimated.”

The coalition based its calculation of secondhand smoking deaths by taking the midpoint between the highest and lowest estimate from various sources, according to Waters.

After learning of the discrepancy, Waters wrote in an e-mail that, “It is not our intention to misrepresent any information. When you have many people working on an issue like this, it is possible to miss corrections that should have been made. Ineither case, the health effects are profound. We will make every effort to be sure our information is represented accurately in the future.”

Some businesses aren’t even aware of the letter’s existence.

Bill Woods, owner of two Steak ‘n Shake restaurants, one in Columbia and one in Jefferson City, wasn’t aware of it. Even though both his restaurants currently allow smoking, he accepts that he may soon have to change that policy.

“It’s a coming trend,” Woods said.

The smoker is used to getting kicked around, he said. Woods believes that in the future more emphasis will be placed on creating effective non-smoking sections.

“If you’re going to have a smoking section you’re going to have to spend the money to segregate the environment,” he said.

Woods is not the only owner left out by the coalition.

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” said Joel Thiel, owner of Otto’s Corner Bar and Grill downtown.

Thiel, though, is well aware of the proposal, and is adamantly opposed to the ordinance. He pointed out that Columbia residents seem to be more concerned about smoking cigarettes than they are about smoking marijuana, referring to the group of laws approved by voters in November that makes possession of small amounts of the drug comparable to a traffic offense.

After seeing a copy of the letter Thiel said he was concerned the coalition wasn’t seeking input from all area restaurants and bars.

“I think it should be left up to the proprietor of the establishment whether or not they want to be smoke-free,” Thiel said.

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