Bar owners rally to oppose statewide smoking ban

click to enlarge Will Pelz, owner of Wills Sports Pub and head of Private - Enterprise Protection, wants to ban smoking bans. - 2006 BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • 2006 Bruce Elliott
  • Will Pelz, owner of Wills Sports Pub and head of Private Enterprise Protection, wants to ban smoking bans.

When Gov. Bill Owens swiftly signed a bill in March mandating a statewide smoking ban, Will Pelz, the owner of a small downtown Colorado Springs bar, was blazing mad.

And he's still smoldering.

"What arrogance," Pelz says. "The casinos are being exempted. That's not fair. That's politics."

In March, Owens signed House Bill 1175, which will, as of July 1, ban smoking in public places. The handful of exemptions includes casinos, a lounge at Denver International Airport and smoke shops.

Colorado joins 12 other states with similar bans: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Washington. At least four other states have less stringent bans that exempt bars and restaurants.

Supporters of the measure argue that lung cancer and heart disease rates will decrease statewide, especially among nonsmoking restaurant and bar workers who are forced to inhale secondhand smoke.

Health issues linked to secondhand smoke are estimated to cost the state $180 million, according to the governor's office. Overall, the 130,000 Colorado smokers who develop smoking-related medical problems each year cost state taxpayers about $1 billion.

But Pelz, who owns Will's Sports Pub and leads an anti-ban group called Private Enterprise Protection, says the exemptions in the bill violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

"If this goes through, many of us are going to go out of business," he says. "People won't stay out long at the bar if they can't smoke."

In informal surveys of his customers, Pelz has found that up to 90 percent smoke when they drink alcohol.

"And people are more worried about how their hair and clothes will smell than about their health," he says.

Pelz's group and other organizations around the state are representing hundreds of bar and tavern owners fighting the ban.

The owners have launched an Internet campaign that Pelz describes as an "e-lobby" at stopthebans.com. Their aim is to stoke furor in the state's estimated 1.2 million smokers and to flood Owens and other lawmakers with thousands of e-mail letters decrying the ban.

Mark Salley, a spokesman for Owens, says the governor isn't tracking those e-mails because it would be pointless. The ban has already been signed into law, Salley notes, adding, "The comments and e-mail that came in initially were favorable."

The bar and tavern owners are also raising $20,000 to pay for a lawsuit that will try to prevent the ban from going into effect.

Salley does not expect that suit to impede the ban.

Opponents of a smoking ban in New Jersey lost the first round of a similar lawsuit. They failed to convince a judge to grant an injunction blocking the ban on the grounds that it violated the Constitution's equal protection clause.

Pelz says bar owners hope their injunction will buy them time. Their goal is to gather the signatures necessary to place a measure on November's ballot asking voters to ban smoking bans.

"We have a lot of political power that we are only starting to exercise," Pelz says. "The politicians are going to be sorry they ever picked a fight with us."


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