It's not easy for a politician to defend smoking but Eagle River Assemblyman Bill Starr will be doing just that next week.
Starr has proposed a repeal of the smoking ban for private clubs. The Assembly will take comment Tuesday night. The change would affect 20 or so clubs -- mostly veterans and fraternal organizations -- but it is really aimed at just one: the Eagles Aerie 4174 in Peters Creek.
The Eagles Aerie, which has 187 members, is located in Starr's district. The aerie has been resisting the smoking ban since it went into effect in 2007 and has had at least two run-ins with the Alcohol Beverage Control Board. The aerie would like to operate an indoor smoking room, separated from where the bartender works by a wall and a door; the room would have outside ventilation. Starr's proposal would make that legal.
Starr said he doesn't think smoking is a healthy habit. But it's also a matter of personal choice. The Eagles do a lot for the community and the ban has hurt their membership.
"When (the Eagles) state their case and you go visit them, you know the one guy walked out of there and you know he's got a prosthetic leg, he's 76 years old, he's got a veteran's hat on," Starr said.
"That's his social life, this is what he does; he goes there and drinks with his buddies and wants to have a smoke. I'm just not in the place where we can reach into his personal choice and say no you can't."
Assemblywoman Debbie Ossiander has also expressed some support for the measure.
On the face of it, I found Starr's argument compelling. Let the guys smoke if they want to. It's a private club. Whatever harm it's going to do has probably already been done. But I still had a lot of questions.
James Stewart, the treasurer for the Eagles in Chugiak, described the membership there as mainly "working stiffs" who range in age from late 40s to well past retirement. They raise money for the fights against cancer and diabetes, and for the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department. He estimated that three-quarters of them smoke. Stewart himself favors cigars. Before the ban, you could walk into the aerie and it would be standing room only, he said.
"(Afterward) a lot of our members just stopped coming in," he said. The older members, in particular, don't like being sent outside to light up in the winter.
"It's hard on their bodies."
I suggested that social change might be responsible for some of the decline. Fraternal club members are getting old and younger members aren't joining. And, if many of them are long-time smokers, tobacco-related health problems might be taking a toll.
"It's not just because they're dying," he said. "It's because they can't smoke."
Other service clubs gave mixed reactions.
Dennis Disshon, commander at AMVets Post 2 near the University Center, said the smoking ban cut into traffic at first but then the post built "the Cadillac of smoke shacks" outside, with insulation and heat. (They also tangled a few times with the city over it but that's apparently resolved now.) The majority of the members smoke. Disshon smokes half a pack of American Spirit Blues a day, even though he's had kidney cancer directly linked to smoking. He welcomed Starr's proposal.
"Old veterans smoke. Hell, they gave 'em cigarettes in their K-rations," he said.
Jim Grant, commander of the American Legion Jack Henry Post 1 on Fireweed Lane, told me his members are mostly over 60. More than half smoke. Grant has been smoking 55 years. Business slowed after the ban but it came back. He spent weeks rehabbing the post, painting and cleaning, to remove the smell, he said. He likes it better. What if people could smoke inside again?
"I would have second thoughts," he said. "I don't want to impose my habit on people that don't smoke."
Friday I talked with Pat Reynaga, a nurse who is the state lead ambassador for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. A number of studies show that having a smoking room, even one with outside ventilation, doesn't protect employees from secondhand smoke, she said. The Eagles' resistance to the smoking ban in Chugiak isn't isolated. It's part of a national push, she said.
A quick Google search showed me that Eagles had resisted bans in West Virginia, Ohio, Washington, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Michigan. Eagles in Juneau sued to challenge the ban, going all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court. They lost. Stewart said he wasn't aware of a national effort.
"But it makes me even prouder to be an Eagle," he said.
Assemblyman Dick Traini helped engineer the smoking ban. He reminded me that more than 70 percent of the electorate voted to support it. It was just logical and better for everybody's health. He doubted Starr's measure had the support it needed to pass.
"We're not going backwards in time," he said.
That stuck with me. The clubs are relics of another era. Smoking inside them is a relic of another time as well. The clubs are easy to like and everyone wants to hold on to them. But it's hard to argue that we need to hold on to the indoor smoking too.