CHEYENNE - A House committee voted Friday to amend a proposed statewide smoking bill to allow people to continue to smoke in bars.
The House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee voted 5-4 to approve House Bill 31, which would ban smoking in restaurants and other public places. The committee decided to allow smoking in bars that require all customers to be at least 21 years old.
The bill now heads to the House floor.
Statewide smoking bans have failed repeatedly in past legislative sessions. The cities of Cheyenne, Laramie and Evanston have enacted their own municipal bans.
Rep. Ken Esquibel, D-Cheyenne, proposed amending the bill to exempt bars from the ban. He said the committee had heard testimony from health care professionals about the dangers of secondhand smoke, but he pointed out that no bartenders had showed up to support the proposed ban.
"That's how I tend to legislate; let those who ride decide," Esquibel said after the vote. He said he believed the bill the committee passed has the best chance of passing on the floor.
Many people in the committee room wore buttons from the group Smoke-Free Wyoming, which has opposed any compromise that would allow smoking to continue in bars.
Dr. Eric Wedell of Cheyenne, co-chairman of Smoke-Free Wyoming, said afterward that he was disappointed with the committee vote.
"We wanted a comprehensive bill," Wedell said. "I think the members of the committee just didn't have enough guts to do what I think they should have done."
The proposed statewide smoking ban has drawn strong opposition from the Wyoming State Liquor Association.
Mike Moser, association executive director, testified to the committee this week that a ban would threaten the livelihoods of thousands of bar owners and other small-business owners.
Speaking after the committee vote, Moser said he didn't believe the bill would make anyone happy, but said he believes the committee reached a moderate point. He said his group intends to continue lobbying against the proposed ban as the bill moves along.
Laura Feldman, a researcher at the University of Wyoming, told the committee before the vote that tobacco consumption in Cheyenne, Laramie and Evanston has fallen by between 9 to 15 percent since city governments instituted smoking bans.
Rep. Dave Bonner, R-Powell, said he voted in favor of the bill to get it out on the House floor for a full debate. He added that he worries about the effect of secondhand smoke on employees in some establishments and that he'd like to see a more comprehensive bill.
Rep. Jack Landon, R-Sheridan, said he had grave concerns about violating private-property rights by imposing a ban.
"I really worry about going down that line where government and society become more important to how we conduct ourselves compared to what the individual does," Landon said.
The following committee members voted in favor the bill: Esquibel; Bonner; Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete; Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell; and Timothy Hallinan, R-Gillette.
Voting against the bill were Landon; Kathleen Davison, R-Kemmerer; Lori Millin, D-Cheyenne; and Lisa Shepperson, R-Casper.