I CAN’T BREATHE You can’t breathe. Alice Wheeler
Since 1985, when a Washington State law exempted bars and restaurants from a ban on smoking in public places, the bar and restaurant lobby has been able to quash every attempt to adopt a comprehensive local smoking ban. Last week, Pierce County became a pioneer, adopting a ban despite long odds against it.

Predictably, the restaurant and tobacco industries went into a lather over the countywide ban, which prohibits smoking in all indoor public places, including bars, restaurants, and bowling alleys. The Washington Restaurant Association--whose government-affairs director, Stan Bowman, did not return a call for comment--immediately threatened to sue; in a statement, WRA's president, Gene Vosberg, said the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health "has no authority" to impose a ban.

Traditionally, county health boards and anti-smoking advocates have been daunted by this legal hurdle. That's one reason not a single local indoor-smoking ban has ever been successful in Washington State; the most recent attempt, by the King County Board of Health, was aborted in 1998 when the state attorney general said the county didn't have the authority. "State law is written in such a way that local jurisdictions can't pass bans," says Roger Valdez, the manager of tobacco-prevention programs for Public Health-Seattle & King County. But Paul Payton, spokesman for the Washington Lung Association, contends that smoking bans just haven't been given a chance. "When other groups tried to make this the law in their jurisdictions, they were automatically slapped with a lawsuit and then they backed off," he says. "No one's really found out whether local rules can be stronger than state law."

In the meantime, Representative Joe McDermott, a Democrat from Seattle, is forging ahead on his own by crafting a proposal for a statewide indoor-smoking ban. Although an earlier attempt to pass a similar proposal flopped in early 2003, McDermott says he "wouldn't be pushing it over to the senate and taking action if I didn't think we had a shot." Valdez adds that a statewide ban is King County's "number-one [anti-smoking] priority."

And it should be. According to Washington BREATHE--a coalition of health and anti-smoking groups that's pushing for a total indoor smoking ban--waitresses are three times more likely to die from lung cancer than women in other lines of work. Working a single shift in a smoky bar is the equivalent of smoking nearly a pack a day, according to JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association; every year, 53,000 people die from secondhand-smoke-related diseases.

Those health concerns are reason enough to adopt a ban. But even more compelling is the fact that smoking bans--contrary to the WRA's dire predictions--actually have a slight positive effect. In California, business at bars and restaurants has actually increased since the legislature imposed a statewide ban in 1998, and tourism has likewise improved.

The restaurant association, perhaps recognizing that it can't win the health argument, makes another claim: A smoking ban, it says, will create "unfair competition... especially with tribal casinos that will not be subject" to the ban. Valdez snorts at the WRA's bizarre contention: "People don't just say, 'I'm not going there. I'm going to the Indian reservation to smoke,'" Valdez says. "They just go stand outside."

barnett@thestranger.com