Alaska is among a handful of states in the West that doesn’t mandate smoke-free workplaces statewide, and one powerful lawmaker is standing in the way of that changing.
State Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux chairs the House Rules Committee and decides which bills make it to the floor. She has balked at moving the bill, which overwhelmingly passed the Senate last year and enjoys widespread support in the House — half the body’s 40 members have signed as co-sponsors.
But LeDoux told a news conference last month that the state should not be “cramming down the throats” of municipalities a program they may not want. A similar measure failed in 2016 after clearing the Senate, dying in a different committee that LeDoux then chaired.
Beyond the news conference, LeDoux has refused to speak to reporters about the bill. She reported receiving $3,100 in campaign contributions from officials with the hospitality organization or affiliates in her most recent fundraising report, a small portion of the more than $65,000 she reported raising between June 30 and Feb. 1.
Legislative rules allow for any member to ask during a floor session for a bill to be moved from a committee. No one in the House has asked to dislodge the smoking restrictions bill.
Doing so in this case could be politically fraught: LeDoux is one of three Republicans, who along with two independents, helped Democrats take control of the House last year. LeDoux also is a leader of the coalition, which holds a narrow majority in the House.
House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat, said he hopes to get the bill passed “in the best way possible,” in a form that’s palatable to his diverse caucus. “I’m still a believer that we’re going to get this bill passed through the traditional channels,” he said.
LeDoux has said she’s open to discussing a provision that would allow local communities to opt-out of the smoke-free program. But anti-smoking activists like the bill as it is. And the bill’s primary sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, told reporters he is spending “zero time” trying to get the bill to the House floor.
“If it gets there, it gets there,” the Soldotna Republican said, adding that his focus is on the state budget.
Half of Alaska’s population lives in communities such as Anchorage and Juneau that have adopted local smoke-free ordinances, said Emily Nenon, Alaska government relations director with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. But some large population centers, like the Fairbanks North Star Borough and Matanuska-Susitna Borough, lack the powers to enact such an ordinance, she said.
“It’s time to just get everybody covered,” she said.
Twenty-five states have laws similar to what is being proposed in Alaska that prohibit smoking in restaurants, bars and non-hospitality workplaces, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Most states without similar laws are in the South along with six in the West, including Alaska.
The Alaska bill would bar smoking and the use of e-cigarettes on buses or in cabs, in office buildings, hotels, restaurants, bars and shops, and in buildings or homes used to provide paid child care. Outdoor smoking would be prohibited within 10 feet (3 meters) of a playground at a school or park when kids are around and within 10 feet (3 meters) of an entrance to a bar or restaurant that serves alcohol, among other locations.
The bill creates exceptions for retail tobacco or e-cigarette stores and for legally operating marijuana businesses, provided they meet certain requirements.
Pete Hanson, president and CEO Alaska CHARR, a hospitality industry association, said businesses have been going smoke-free on their own and few still allow indoor smoking.
“Everybody can find a smoke-free restaurant or bar to work in, dine in or drink in,” he said in an email. “Allowing people to make their own choices seems to be getting us there anyway, without a state mandate.”
Joni Ellsworth, who owns Ivory Jacks roadhouse in Fairbanks, agrees. She said she gets calls from people who would rather the place be smoke-free. “But we have a pretty large population that do want it,” she said.
“So far, we’re sticking to our guns,” she said. Smoking is allowed on one side of the room, but there is a good ventilation system, she said. Ellsworth, a nonsmoker who also contributed to LeDoux’s campaign, also said employees have not made a fuss about it.
Jenny Olendorff said the legislation is long overdue. The former smoker lost her mother-in-law to lung cancer and for years, while working as a tobacco-quit coach, gagged on smoke that wafted into her office in a Soldotna strip mall from the next door pull-tabs business.
“We all have a right to a safe work environment. Period,” she said.