HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Some state lawmakers want smoking snuffed out in private clubs, one of the few places where people can still lawfully light up in Connecticut.
The General Assembly’s Public Health Committee heard testimony Wednesday on a bill that would add clubs such as the local VFW, The Hartford Club or a golf club to the list of places where smoking is now prohibited under state law _ joining restaurants, bars and businesses with five or more employees.
While proponents argue that extending the ban would help protect workers from being exposed to the health dangers of second-hand smoke, representatives from the clubs believe the General Assembly is overreaching, telling a private entity that’s governed by its own boards and commissioners how to operate.
“A private club is not a public institution. It is the closest thing to being a member of basically your home and the activities that happen there are much like your home,” said Vince Valvo of West Hartford, a member of The Hartford Club’s board of governors. Valvo said the club has a private smoking lounge, equipped with a $200,000 special ventilation system, that’s popular with many members.
He said there have been no complaints from members, guests or groups using the club’s banquet facilities about the smoke. Valvo said he worries that extending the ban to clubs could put some in financial hardship, discouraging smokers from joining.
“It’s a difficult time for clubs to keep members . given the economy,” he said. “We run on membership dues and an awful lot (of members) do like having the advantage of a smoking lounge.”
In 2003, the legislature passed the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. The same legislation, however, exempted private clubs and the state’s two tribal casinos, prompting a group of bar and restaurant owners to challenge the ban in court. The state Supreme Court upheld the law in 2007, and Justice Christine Vertefeuille at the time wrote how legislators may have reasonably been attempting “to protect the financial investment and settled expectations of members of private clubs.”
But anti-smoking advocates argued that not only club members are exposed to the smoke.
“Many allow guests, or even rent out the facility for public events. So are they as private as they claim,” asked Pat Checko, chairwoman of the state coalition known as Mobilizing Against Tobacco for Connecticut’s Health, in written testimony to the committee. “The science is clear. There is no safe level of secondhand smoke. And there is no logical reason for private clubs to remain exempt.”
Checko said she doesn’t believe private clubs will fold if members can’t smoke. She said restaurants and bars have not suffered a loss of business because of the law “and our citizens have a much healthier indoor environment.”
Rusty Meek of Manchester, a member of the VFW, Elks, Masons and American Legion, said he and other veterans who belong to the Manchester VFW enjoy getting together to share a drink, a smoke, some conversation and possibly a football game on TV. He said groups like the MATCH Coalition, the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society didn’t try to stop soldiers from going into harm’s way when they fought in wars, so there was no reason to try to stop them from smoking in a club.
“It’s not the smoking that bugs us. It’s the fact you’re trying to tell us what to do. It’s not your responsibility. It’s my responsibility,” he said. “Let us handle our own business.”
Lawmakers have made other attempts to extend the state’s smoking ban in recent years. Last year, the legislature ran out of time to vote on two bills that would expand a ban on smoking in the workplace and in hundreds of state-licensed child care facilities across the state. In 2009, an effort to ban smoking at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun died during the session.
This latest bill to extend the ban to private clubs awaits action by the Public Health Committee.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)