Cigarette
Associated Press

A proposed rule that would ban indoor vaping and bar smoking within 30 feet of commercial doorways would hurt local businesses and curtail individual rights, opponents of the proposal said Wednesday night.  

The draft rule proposed by the RiverStone Board of Health, the county's public health governing body, would restrict the use of e-cigarettes inside public and commercial buildings. The rule would also prohibit smoking and using e-cigarettes within 30 feet of entrances, windows and ventilation systems of public and commercial buildings.

"Thirty feet is impossible downtown," said Jim Grubbs, owner of Club 90 in Billings, at a public hearing Wednesday night during the health board's monthly meeting. Opponents spoke for about an hour Wednesday.

He told the board his customers have grown accustomed to stepping outside to smoke since the statewide indoor smoking ban took effect in bars in 2009. But, he said, forcing his customers to step outside and then move 30 feet from the entrance to light up would put one more damper on his business.  

"For us to lose that little edge we have for our customers would be a tremendous economic hit," he said.  

John Iverson, who represents the Montana Tavern Association, told the board the proposed rule simply goes too far. 

"This rule is about making smoking so inconvenient it becomes de facto prohibition," he said.

Also at the meeting were the owners and managers of a handful of e-cigarette shops in Billings who spoke about the important role vaping plays in helping some people stop smoking. 

Randy Coulter, who works at uBlaze Vapor, talked about the customers he's helped replace smoking with vaping. A big part of that is allowing people to test out different flavors and products in the store. 

He fears the new rule would restrict that practice and hurt business. 

Rather than enacting the new rule, the county board of health should leave it up to individual shops and stores to decide, he said. 

"It should be more up to the businesses," he said. 

Jason Cornfeld, who owns Old Skool Vape Society, which crafted a portion of its business around inviting customers in to try various products, agreed and encouraged the board to let shops like his allow indoor vaping.

In support

Speaking in support of the newly proposed rule was Robert Merchant, a pulmonary critical care doctor from Billings Clinic, who said creating smoke-free environments was a key component to good public health. 

Just last night, he said, he was working with three people who were on breathing machines because of a lifetime of smoking. 

Proponents of the new rule spoke for about 20 minutes and included a handful of cancer survivors with weakened lungs and other respiratory ailments. Many spoke about the dangers of dealing with secondhand smoke in public as they enter or leave restaurants and clubs. 

Kay Carlson, a cancer survivor, said smoke in doorways is an irritant to her lungs and dangerous to her grandson, who has asthma. 

"I will fight with everything I have," she said. 

Bill Underriner, owner of Underriner Motors, addressed the board and told them the rule was vital to protecting public health. 

"We need to have a smoke-free environment," he said. 

The board will continue to discuss the proposed rule and could make a decision as early as the end of July. If it votes to approve the rule, the earliest it would go into effect would be October.

The public hearing remains open through the first of July. Public comments can be submitted in writing to rule7@riverstonehealth.org.

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.