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HELENA - Calling the bill "dead on arrival," Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby, said Monday that he has dropped plans to sponsor legislation to permanently exempt some 1,400 Montana bars and casinos from a statewide smoking ban effective Oct. 1.

Black said he has put a hold on the bill.

"I do not intend to pursue it in any way, he said, "although I do agree with my requester of the bill that it is a property rights issue, and customers should have a choice of going to a smoking or a nonsmoking establishment.

"But people are overwhelmingly supportive of the Indoor Clean Air Act. So there is no sense in pursuing a bill that has no chance of passing."

Darrell Keck, a Shelby tavern owner, had asked Black to sponsor the bill on behalf of "a little grass-roots movement" of 100 members.

Last fall, he said, "People don't go into a bar for their health. If that were the case, I guess they'd be serving booze at the health clubs."

On Monday, Keck said it's too early to tell what will happen.

"There's a lot of people out there who support that (idea of exempting bars and taverns), and they (legislators) haven't even heard from them," he said.

Last fall, the boards of directors of the Montana Tavern Association and Gaming Industry Association of Montana, which represent taverns and casinos respectively, voted overwhelmingly to oppose exempting bars from the smoking ban. They said they wanted to live up to an agreement they made with health groups in 2005.

Under that agreement, the Legislature passed the Montana Indoor Clean Air Act in 2005, banning smoking in all buildings where the public gathered. But the act didn't apply to bars and casinos until October 2009, to give them more time to prepare for the change.

A coalition of public health groups that helped pass the 2005 law was lined up to oppose Black's bill.

Kristin Page Nei, Montana government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said she had heard Black was dropping his legislation.

"We are happy that he's decided not to carry this bill forward, and we ask Montanans to stand vigilant," she said. "There may be amendments or future bills."

That's why the American Cancer Society Action Network is having a fund-raising reception at the Montana City Grill in Montana City on Jan. 27. It will honor champions of a smoke-free Montana.

She said it's important for Montanans to voice their support to their legislators for the Montana Indoor Clean Air Act.

Anticipating a fight this session, the health advocacy groups commissioned a statewide telephone poll in September. It found 79 percent of Montana voters favored the Indoor Clean Air Act, while 20 percent opposed it. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Nei said Black was wise to drop the bill.

"He's absolutely right," she said. "Montanans understand that this is a public health issue, and Montanans don't want to be exposed to the toxins that are in second-hand smoke."

Even though Black has abandoned his bill, "we stirred up a hornet's nest," he said.

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