DENVER — When Louisville banned smoking in public places, Outback Steakhouse partner Tom Flanagan watched dozens of customers flock to the chain’s restaurants in nearby Lafayette, where they could light up without concern. It took a year and a half to attract enough new customers to get sales back to normal.
“We can deal with that, but a lot of the mom-and-pop restaurants probably can’t,” said Flanagan, among a group that owns all 19 Outback restaurants in Colorado.
Local smoking bans have gained momentum in recent years and are now in place in about a dozen Colorado communities. Restaurant owners like Flanagan fear a patchwork of local bans could drive some of them out of business and they’ve reluctantly joined a coalition of health groups backing a statewide ban.
However, they’re facing an odd partisan standoff at the state Capitol, where smoking was allowed on the third floor until this year: Senate Republicans have dug in their heels against the proposal despite the support of business groups, traditional GOP allies.
Minority Leader Mark Hillman, who lined up caucus members against the bill, says the proposal is an attempt by majority Democrats to impose their “nanny-state morality” on Coloradans, rather than letting them decide for themselves whether they want to smoke or where they want to eat.
“I think it explodes the myth that Republicans are in the pocket of big business if big business thinks it’s a good idea,” said Hillman, who doesn’t smoke.
Hillman said his position isn’t influenced by contributions from the tobacco industry and pointed out that he’s also gotten money from two supporters of the ban — the Colorado Restaurant Association and the Colorado Medical Society. The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, the statewide chamber of commerce, also backs the bill.
Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer said the smoking ban could be a chance for Republicans to be united on an issue after losing control of both houses of the Legislature in the November election. Senate GOP members are split over the deal Gov. Bill Owens struck with Democrats to ask voters for more money to solve Colorado’s fiscal crisis.
The GOP’s stance on the smoking ban appears to be a mixture of both principle and politics, Straayer said.
“For some, it’s probably a genuine concern to limit the reach of government. For others, it’s probably an attempt to seek political advantage by characterizing the Democrats as being interested in excessive government control,” he said.
Republican Sen. Jim Dyer said the proposed ban is also a property rights issue and it should be left up to each restaurant owner to decide whether to outlaw smoking.
“If they’re willing to stand on their convictions, they don’t have to allow smoking,” he said.
Pete Meersman, president and CEO of the restaurant association, said his group has long argued that individual owners should decide whether they want to be smoke free, but the reality is that businesses are losing money as customers leave them for others that don’t have a ban.
“I can make the free market argument all day long, but that argument doesn’t fly with the city councils that have passed local smoking bans,” he said.
Polling by the group shows that support among restaurant owners has grown over the last two years, but Meersman admits it was a difficult decision to back the statewide ban since some members are in cities that would likely never see any restrictions.
The GOP has found a few allies on the smoking ban among the majority Democrats, including Sen. Bob Hagedorn of Aurora. A pipe and cigar smoker, he said he opposes the ban because he thinks voters should decide whether a statewide ban is needed.
However, he said he’s torn because he recognizes the dangers of second-hand smoke. He said he is not sure why Republicans would want to make a united stand against a smoking ban in a state where only 19 percent of people smoke.
“You run the risk of running afoul of that 80 percent who don’t smoke,” he said.
Sen. Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, supports the ban and doesn’t think the debate should just be about people’s right to smoke.
“If they want to smoke in their house, their car or in a park away from other people, that’s their right,” he said. “When you’re at work or in a public place, I’m not sure if they do have the right to expose other people to second-hand smoke.”