Melissa Capps of Seymour is a smoker.
Last weekend, she chose not to light up a cigarette during the Seymour Oktoberfest to keep other people, especially kids, from having to breathe in her secondhand smoke.
She and her husband, Bryan, who also is a smoker, say they choose not to smoke in their own home to protect their children from exposure to secondhand smoke.
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But when the Cappses go to a 21-and-over bar or club that allows smoking, such as On the Rox, Bubba’s or Brewskies, they exercise their right to engage in the legal act of smoking.
And that is a right they and others don’t want taken away.
“We’re not asking to smoke everywhere. We’re just asking to smoke somewhere,” Bryan Capps said.
The Cappses joined around 80 people who attended a town hall meeting Wednesday night at the Seymour Community Center to discuss a proposal by a local smoke-free coalition to change Seymour’s existing smoking ordinance.
Smoke Free Seymour, a group led by retired county health officer Dr. Kenneth Bobb and former city Councilman Mike Jordan, is seeking support to add new restrictions to the law, which currently bans smoking in most public places and keeps smokers 10 feet away from entrances to public buildings.
The group is proposing four major changes to the ordinance: Banning smoking from all bars and clubs, including those with private membership; increasing the distance where smoking is permitted near a public entrance from 10 feet to 20 feet; making smoking illegal at festivals and other public gatherings of 50 or more people; and to include all electronic forms of smoking, such as e-cigarettes and vape machines.
Bobb, a former smoker, said smoking presents a public health concern that needs to be addressed by public policy, similar to laws created to enforce seat belts, speed limits and food safety.
“Secondhand smoke kills,” he said. “Secondhand smoke kills 53,000 Americans prematurely every year. Secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States.”
Jackson County is ranked 60 out of 92 counties when it comes to the health of its citizens, he said.
“We can do better than 60,” he said.
Another town hall meeting is planned for 7 p.m. Aug. 26 at the Seymour Community Center, and then the group will present its request to the city council in November.
City Councilman Matt Nicholson helped facilitate Wednesday’s meeting to give the public an opportunity to voice their opinions on the matter.
“I still don’t agree 100 percent with what is being presented, but I’m always willing to listen to both sides before making a decision,” he said. “We can have a conversation. We cannot agree with each other but hear what the other’s got to say.”
Wednesday night’s meeting was well-attended and remained civil, as each person who wished to talk had three minutes to do so.
Melissa Capps said she came to the meeting to stand up and protect her rights. She also wanted to bring up concerns with all of the local industries that already have smoker areas outside of their buildings that may not be 20 feet away from the door.
“I’m not here to debate whether (smoking) is good or bad,” she said. “None of us should be. It’s about our choice. We’re already very limited to where we can go.”
Nick Torres with the American Lung Association in Indianapolis said the goal of smoke-free laws is simply a healthier community for everybody.
Such laws are a way to lower smoking rates by making it easier for smokers to quit and to discourage youth from smoking, he said.
“It’s not a ban. We’re still telling everybody you’re free to make the choice to smoke,” he said. “We’re not trying to infringe on anyone’s choice to smoke, but choosing to smoke is a choice. Breathing is not a choice. That is a right. People have the right to breathe smoke-free air in public and in the workplace.
“It’s not about taking someone’s cigarettes away,” he added. “It’s just about asking folks to smoke in a way that doesn’t harm other people. All we are asking is people to be courteous and just step outside and smoke.”
Brian D’Arco owns Bubba’s Place, a local bar that currently allows smoking. He also sits on the city council.
He opposes the proposed changes because he said they will hurt his business and other bars and clubs.
“Everyone has the choice of where they would like to go and where they would not like to go,” he said. “It is the choice of the owner. It is not the choice of government to tell what the owner can do.”
Seymour wouldn’t be the first Indiana community to consider and pass a smoke-free law. Bloomington has had a smoke-free ordinance since 2003, and Kokomo/Howard County just implemented a law this year.
“This is not something new,” Torres said. “We are behind the times actually in Indiana.”
Some states, including Ohio and Illinois, have laws that cover the whole state, he added.
Shirley Dubois, tobacco-free coordinator for Kokomo/Howard County, said her community passed a similar policy to what is being proposed in Seymour in March.
She said many places, including bars and membership clubs, have increased their business since implementing smoke-free rules.
“We haven’t seen anybody close, and we’ve seen new business,” she said. “Our policy is not against the smokers. It is simply for the health of our community and to protect everybody from secondhand smoke in public places.”
Chad and Laurie Keithley own Brewskies Grub and Pub in Seymour and said the proposed changes would hurt their business. They are both smokers.
Around 75 percent of Brewskies’ employees smoke, and 85 percent of their customers smoke, Chad said.
“We have people that come from Iowa, from Illinois, just to watch bands because they tell us, ‘We can smoke in your bar,’” he said.
He said the choice to allow smoking should be left up to the business owner.
“I keep hearing the word choice. Everyone has a choice,” he said. “I have a choice to run my business the way I see fit. Everything we do at our business is legal. I’ve had people come in, see people smoking and leave, and that is their choice.”
“We’re not endangering anyone with what we’re doing,” Laurie said. “And it’s legal. It’s perfectly legal to smoke a cigarette.”
She also said it isn’t practical to make customers stand 20 feet away from the door of their business to smoke.
“We’d be putting them in the middle of our parking lot,” she said.
Several residents shared stories of loved ones who died from lung cancer, some who smoked and others who didn’t but lived with smokers and were exposed to secondhand smoke.
Erin Meadors, chair of the Libertarian Party in Jackson County, said those stories have nothing to do with government and people’s rights.
“Government is supposed to be there to protect all rights for all people. That includes smokers, nonsmokers and the business owners,” she said. “The thing to think about in this vote is what does this do? What kind of slippery slope are we on where your business is next and your choice is gone?”
Dr. Rosemary Weir, a local physician, said she sees both sides of the argument, but she isn’t worried about herself in the issue.
“I’m worried about the next generation and how their health is going to be,” she said. “I do care about everyone’s health. I don’t want to see you get COPD (cardio obstructive pulmonary disease) or cancer. I tell my patients that smoking is like playing Russian roulette. So from my standpoint, it’s a health issue.”
Jeff Webb, owner of Vapin Tonight in Seymour, said his business is working to help people quit smoking through vaping. He doesn’t want electronic cigarettes and vaping to be “lumped” into the city’s law, he said.
“This will destroy my business. Vapors come into my business. They taste our flavors,” he said. “It’s not the smoke that kills. It’s all the tar and tobacco when you ignite a cigarette. I’m here to get Seymour off of cigarettes. You can’t throw us in that same pocket.”