Why Indy’s behind the pack

The debate over a proposal in Indianapolis to ban smoking in bars and other workplaces has been impassioned, pitting arguments of public health against appeals for personal liberty and business concerns.

Impassioned, but not new.

Those same arguments have been heard in places such as Columbus, Ohio, Louisville and Lexington, Ky., and Baltimore — and all of them prohibit smoking in workplaces, restaurants and bars.

In fact, in the past four years, more than 250 municipalities across the country — including 11 in Indiana — have limited smoking in those public places. Which begs a question: What makes Indianapolis different?

Experts say it is a combination of factors: Hoosiers’ reluctance to change; the absence of a strong health culture; and a cautious political climate.

Others point to a lack of support from leaders, including Mayor Greg Ballard, who, after weeks of silence on the issue, last week said the city’s current ban on smoking in restaurants and other public spaces works just fine and no further restrictions are needed.

On Monday, the City-County Council voted 14-13 to table the issue. It would take support from a majority of the 29-member council to revive debate on the ban.

Running through the current of opposition, experts say, is an individualistic spirit rooted deep in Indiana’s pioneer culture.

“There’s a real sort of libertarian streak in this city: Don’t let government tell me what to do, and don’t let government tell businesses what to do,” said Dave Strong, an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis sociology professor who studies social movements. “There’s no question we’re months and, in some cases, years behind the curve.”
It’s in our genes

The first generations of Hoosiers were primarily nonslaveholders from the upland South. They distrusted government and placed a strong emphasis on individual freedom, said Jim Madison, a history professor at Indiana University and author of “The Indiana Way.”

Those ideals would set the tone for the political culture in years to come. Until the 1960s, the city would not accept federal money because leaders did not want to agree to the bureaucratic restrictions that accompany it, said Mike O’Connor, a local lobbyist who was deputy mayor under former Mayor Bart Peterson.

And smoking is not the only public health and safety issue that Hoosiers have been resistant to legislate.

Recent generations of state lawmakers also have resisted the notion of passing a helmet law for motorcyclists for fear of inhibiting personal choice.

“As much of a progressive city as we’ve become,” O’Connor said, “there still is that underlying sentiment of ‘What are they doing telling me where I can smoke?’ ”

Also fueling the resistance is an atmosphere of political caution in the city. That thrives here, in part, because local politics tend to be more partisan than in some other municipalities, said George Geib, a Butler University history professor who has written about Indianapolis’ political climate.

“We want these things, but we first want to see how it’s working in other places,” Geib said. “We want to be in a situation where, when we do make a move, we want to make sure it will be successful.”

Indianapolis politicians also may be more sympathetic to voters’ health vices, experts say. That’s particularly true in a city that consistently ranks high in its number of smokers and overweight residents.

“People in Indianapolis do smoke more, and people in Indianapolis do overeat more,” said Christine Von Der Haar, an IU sociology professor who studies public opinion. “You’re going to have a hard time getting the ban through because you don’t have public support.”

Ballard, a nonsmoker who has pushed health initiatives such as bike lanes, said further restricting smokers could demoralize them.

Overall, though, he thinks most Indianapolis residents are apathetic about the issue. That’s why, he said, he didn’t articulate his views until Monday — and then only to the council’s Republican caucus before the vote that night.

“I’ve been leading on so many issues,” Ballard said, ticking off a list of matters such as a balanced budget, infrastructure and green initiatives. “We understand what people really care about in this city.”
Business view divided

But those on the front lines of the fight care deeply.

Brad Klopfenstein, former executive director of the Indiana Licensed Beverage Association who leads a group called Save Indianapolis Bars, is one of the ban’s firmest opponents. He said the city’s resistance is a good thing for owners of family-owned, neighborhood bars where a ban could hurt sales.

In Indianapolis, bar owners’ interests carry more weight than they would in some other cities, O’Connor said, because the convention business is so dominant.

But there’s another powerful business lobby speaking in favor of the ban: the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.

Roland Dorson, the chamber’s president, said having a comprehensive smoking ban bolsters the city’s progressive image, and that helps attract talent.

“It sends a message to the rest of the world that Indianapolis is the kind of place you want to come to,” Dorson said. “We want Indianapolis to have that sense of the future that a smoking ban can bring, or at least signal.”
What’s ahead

Both supporters and opponents say they’re uncertain whether the debate will be revived any time soon and whether it could pass.

But proponents point to a positive indicator. An IUPUI survey of Indianapolis voters conducted for Smoke Free Indy and released in May showed about 70 percent support strengthening the city ordinance.

Angela Mansfield, a council Democrat who is sponsoring the current proposal, said momentum for smoking bans has increased since 2005, when the current law passed. It bans smoking in most workplaces, including restaurants, and public spaces such as hotel lobbies. She pointed to the other Indiana communities that have passed bans that include bars since then.

And this time, there’s a little more support from Republicans. Four, including Ryan Vaughn, the council’s vice president, voted in favor of it.

“It’s not a partisan issue,” Mansfield said. “When you look at the statistics, the community wants this.”

Klopfenstein disagrees that support for the ban has increased, but he acknowledges the cause isn’t going away. To counter it, Save Indianapolis Bars is remaining active instead of dismantling until the issue arises again.

Some experts say getting a comprehensive smoking ban in Indianapolis could require more than shifts of political will. They point out that as older smokers become a less vocal voting bloc, a younger generation could demand the change. And as more bars go nonsmoking voluntarily, it could signal to leaders that smoke-free venues are popular.

But as it is with other movements in Indiana, Madison said, a new policy could take time.

“Hoosiers have been reluctant to change,” he said. “We’re evolutionary, never revolutionary.”

By Francesca Jarosz
November 1, 2009

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