Lawmakers in 2014 may tighten N.H.’s 2007 indoor smoking ban

Last modified: Thursday, December 12, 2013
Since 2007, smoking has been banned at every New Hampshire bar and restaurant save American Legion halls, Veterans of Foreign Wars post canteens, fraternal club lodges and the like.

The Legislature will decide in 2014 whether to end that exception and apply the state’s indoor smoking ban to those clubs – an idea sure to face opposition from smokers and their defenders.

“You’ve got veterans that shed blood for freedom, and some gave all,” said Rep. Al Baldasaro of Londonderry, the ranking Republican member on the House State-Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs Committee. “Why would you go after their rights and take away their rights? It make no sense.”

But officials at some local clubs think a ban could actually be a boon, by helping attract new members who might be turned off by a smoky bar.

“Speaking for myself, I’d love to see no smoking, but . . . as a trustee it probably would hurt business, probably temporarily,” said Raymond Nolin, head trustee at the Fraternal Order of the Eagles Aerie No. 613 on South Main Street in Concord. “I think we’d be able to get a lot of members back if we stopped smoking.”

Twenty-four states ban smoking in all restaurants, bars and workplaces, according to the American Cancer Society’s advocacy arm, the Cancer Action Network. An additional 12 states, including New Hampshire, have less strict indoor smoking bans on the books.

The Granite State’s ban was enacted in 2007, a year after a similar ban cleared the House but failed in the Senate by a single vote.

It banned smoking in bars and restaurants but exempted “buildings owned and operated by social, fraternal, or religious organizations when used by the membership of the organization, their guests or families,” among other locations.

That means smoking is still allowed at the VFW Post 1631 on Court Street in Concord, “unless the public is invited in, like for a memorial service or something like that,” said Paul Lloyd, the post quartermaster.

But that could soon change. Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, plans to introduce a bill next year that would expand the indoor smoking ban to include social, fraternal and religious clubs.

“I think the times have changed dramatically, and this is putting the imprimatur on the change. . . . I think if you’re going to ban smoking, you’re going to ban smoking,” D’Allesandro said.

Baldasaro said his own home post, American Legion Post 27 in Londonderry, has opted to ban smoking, though it also built a separate smoking room “so they weren’t treated like second-class citizens.”

That’s how it should work, he said.

“Every post should make its own decision, rather than the government coming in and telling them how to run their posts,” he said. “They’re private organizations.”

But Rep. Don LeBrun, a Nashua Republican, said the dangers of smoking – to the smoker, to those in close proximity and to society at large – are well-known and widely acknowledged.

He’s a co-sponsor of D’Allesandro’s bill, and thinks clubs will see an increase, not a decrease, in membership if it goes through.

“The cost of installing a smokers’ room is so minimal that I’m surprised that the largest majority of establishments have not discreetly installed them and not made it such an issue,” LeBrun wrote in an email. “Most smokers I speak with seem not to take offense to using a designated area. Most are offended by having to go out in the cold to do so.”

James Golden, commander of the New Hampshire VFW, said he can’t speak for the organization as a whole or for individual posts. But personally, he said, he supports the smoking ban.

“There are nonsmokers and there are smokers, and a lot of nonsmokers don’t go to the post because of the smoke,” Golden said. “I think, long term, it hurts the bottom line.”

Lloyd said he worries that if the Concord VFW post banned smoking on its own, smokers would simply go somewhere else. A statewide ban “would level the playing field, as it were,” he said.

“I think it’s a good thing, because we’re losing members coming in all the time with advanced ages and stuff like that. And along with those advanced ages are health concerns and health problems, which are either caused by or aggravated by smoking,” Lloyd said. “So they don’t come in anymore because of the smoke.”

Business might dip temporarily due to a smoking ban, he said, “but in the long run, it would help us by bringing people in.”

Gov. Maggie Hassan, then a state senator, voted for the indoor smoking ban in 2007. But she hasn’t taken a position on D’Allesandro’s bill.

“Gov. Hassan believes reducing second-hand smoke is critical for strengthening the health of our people and communities, and she appreciates the need to respect the rights of private organizations as steps are taken to address second-hand smoke,” said spokesman Marc Goldberg. “She looks forward to listening to the views of all sides as the measure moves through the legislative process.”

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)