Smokers, businesses, health leaders weigh in

01/17/2010 12:00 AM

01/17/2010 7:30 AM

Steve Wood fires up a cigarette, takes a drag, looks you in the eye and admits he's an addict.

He tried everything to quit smoking, but never could. Now, he says, the governor of Kansas is trying to make him quit.

That makes Wood, a smoker for 35 of his 57 years on the planet, bitter.

"To me it's a constitutional right," he says at a table in the Heritage Restaurant at 4551 S. Broadway in Wichita.

Gov. Mark Parkinson on Monday proposed a statewide smoking ban and a 55-cent hike in the cigarette tax to $1.34 a pack. The tax increase is intended to help deter smoking and to help make up a chunk of the $400 million deficit in the state's budget.

Wood says he spent two years in Vietnam fighting for everybody's rights, including his right to smoke. No ban or tax hike will stop him.

"The more they come out with laws against it, the more I do it," he says. "If you ask any smoker, they'll tell you the same thing."

If you ask his friend Bobbie Gilbert, she will agree.

"How come we're the first ones they sock with taxes, and the first ones they rip away the rights from?" says Gilbert, puffing a cigarette in the chair beside Wood. "We've already been taxed to death."

Gilbert says bans and tax hikes only will force addicted smokers into a corner where they will do anything, including commit crimes, to feed their habits.

Wood, Gilbert and other smokers think the government's next step will be to ban smoking in their homes and cars, especially if children are around.

At another table in the restaurant, Ken Gantt, 50, a disabled military veteran who served in the Middle East, Europe, Southeast Asia and Central and South America, says he smokes to relax from the stress of chronic pain caused by injuries suffered in combat training and from his battles with the Veteran's Administration over benefits.

He is angry at the governor's proposals, too.

Gantt said he is either at home every day or visiting at the restaurant with other vets.

"That's my day. He's going to take away what little freedom I do have," Gantt says.

Incentive to quit

Not all smokers are quite as angry.

Mark Elliott, 52, a carpenter from Haysville, said the tax hike would offer more incentive for him to quit.

"I think about it all the time. It's a bad habit," says Elliott, who has been trying to quit since he was 25.

But he says, "It won't be the money ultimately, it'll be the willpower. If you're going to smoke, you'll pay the money."

One who may quit is Phil Ballou, 52, of Wichita. He has cut back from three packs of generic cigarettes a day to two. He might cut back even more if the tax goes into effect.

"There's a lot of bitter feelings because they're trying to get people to quit smoking," Ballou says. "What happened to free rights?"

Ballou is sitting in the Heritage with a friend, Ed Harjo, who supports the governor's proposals.

"It's not a right," Harjo tells him.

"It should be," Ballou says.

"It's not a right if it's a choice," Harjo says.

"It's a choice I made," Ballou says. "What happened to free choice? This is the United States."

Cheaper in Oklahoma

Up the street, Scott Stroud, a car lot attendant from Wichita, walks into Tee Pee's Smoke Shop at 1961 S. Broadway and buys three packs of Mavericks. Stroud says he spends about $2,500 a year on cigarettes. Under Parkinson's tax hike, he calculates that would climb to $2,750.

"If it's going to get that high, I'd go to Indian reservations just across the border down south and I'd buy them a lot cheaper than here," Stroud says.

David Flax, who owns this smoke shop and three other Tee Pee's in Wichita, as well as two in Newton, has heard this before.

"Every person that comes in here is worried about it," he says.

Flax says cigarette taxes are about equal in Kansas and Oklahoma right now. If the tax in Kansas rises as much as Parkinson proposes, he'd lose business to Oklahoma, and Kansas would lose that revenue, he says.

"They go down and gamble anyway, and they're going to get four or five cartons when they're down there," Flax says.

It'll be worse in other parts of the state. The tax in Kansas would make a carton of cigarettes $10 higher than in Missouri, Flax says.

"That'll kill anybody in eastern Kansas. Who's going to buy cigarettes in eastern Kansas?" he says.

Deterring smokers

But Parkinson's proposals have plenty of support.

Carolyn Gaughan, executive director of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians, said the tax would prevent some people from taking up cigarettes in the first place. Usually, those people are teenagers.

Studies show that every 10 percent increase in tobacco taxes decreases teenage tobacco use by 7 percent, she says.

She also favors the ban. "Even with reduced use, tobacco taxes remain a reliable revenue source," Gaughan says.

The money it would raise is a small percentage of what smoking costs everybody in the state, she says. Although 80 percent of Kansans don't smoke, every household in the state pays $572 a year to cover the health care costs of smokers, according to tobaccofreekids.org.

Diane Tinker, development director for the American Lung Association in Kansas, also favors the tax increase.

"It's a proven fact that if you increase the tobacco tax, you increase the number of people who don't pick up a pack of cigarettes, and you increase the number of people who quit smoking," she says.

Tinker says the association is waiting to see the details of Parkinson's proposal. The organization generally favors ordinances that ban smoking in public places including workplaces, so people who don't smoke won't suddenly be hit by allergies and asthma, she says.

"Taking a breath shouldn't be a matter of life and death," Tinker says.

Impact on restaurants

Parkinson didn't go into details in his speech, but a spokesperson said he would use as his framework for legislation a bill introduced last year by former Sen. David Wysong, R-Mission Hills. It banned smoking in bars, restaurants, workplaces and most other public areas. Private clubs, casinos, beer gardens and tobacco shops would have been exempt.

The Senate twice approved a version of the measure, but it stalled in the House.

The bill would have replaced local smoking bans now in place, including the partial ban in Wichita that went into effect Sept. 4, 2008.

Wichita's ordinance bans smoking in businesses that serve customers under age 18. Businesses had the choice of going smoke-free, building separate rooms for smokers, or serving only adults.

David Chaffin, owner of Players Sports Bar and Grill, 6200 W. 21st St., says he spent $45,000 building a smoking room in his restaurant. He calls it "a rousing success," a perfect model for such a room, one that has pleased all his customers.

He is upset the governor would waste that expense by eliminating smoking from restaurants.

"Restaurants can't make it if they're smoke-free," he says. "The restaurant business is too close to the vest to operate without them."

Sonny Glennon, general manager of the Scotch & Sirloin, 5325 E. Kellogg, says he added a separate upstairs smoking room, which he calls "an expensive proposition."

But he isn't upset by Parkinson's proposals.

"We knew that ultimately this would probably happen," Glennon says. "This is something that's nationwide. We'll adjust to the law as the law goes."

In Derby, which has a stricter smoking ordinance than Wichita, Debbie Rather, owner of Little Buster's, a bar and grill at 457 N. Baltimore, says her business has been hurting, but not because of the smoking ban.

"We have hit hard times because of the recession, and Derby's being bombarded with restaurants," she says.

Derby doesn't allow smoking in public places or within 20 feet of main entrances. Rather has provided an outdoor patio for smokers at Little Buster's.

The ban has had some benefits, Rather says. She's noticed that families and other regulars are returning more often because Little Buster's is smoke-free.

"It was an adjustment, but we've been blessed, and we're still hanging in there," Rather says.

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