It’s not always about being first.
Last week Pine Bluff became the second major city in Arkansas, after Fayetteville, to ban smoking in public places.
But the Pine Bluff decision was far more significant than Fayetteville’s, and it gives the anti-smoking movement considerable momentum and signals a real possibility to implement similar measures statewide.
Fayetteville’s ban, on the other hand, could easily be dismissed by opponents as simply the isolated action of a bunch of liberal, hippie do-gooders. The law was enacted by popular referendum in February 2004, and the college town is thought to be out of the mainstream when it comes to public opinion.
Pine Bluff’s demographics are less suggestive of an inclination toward progressive public health initiatives. It is a majority-black city in the Delta, and neither urban blacks nor rural whites are setting the standard for healthy living. In fact, those populations are among the unhealthiest in the country, caused mainly by poor nutrition, lack of exercise and bad habits (like smoking).
Nor was the smoking ban subjected to a popular vote, as it was in Fayetteville. Instead it was barely approved by the City Council, which split 4-4 on the issue. Mayor Carl Redus broke the tie, making Pine Bluff the first majority-black city in the nation to adopt such a measure.
With that in mind, it was a politically courageous decision. The mayor and the four council members who supported the ban resisted business owners and others who passionately argued against them. (A June 3 article in the Pine Bluff Commercial headlined “Local business owners oppose smoking ordinance” catalogued a host of grievances.)
Still, if the elected officials in Pine Bluff felt they had to make their city a pioneer in the arena of public health, there is reason to believe that the rest of the state will follow its lead. For one thing, it indicates that the anti-smoking education programs funded by the tobacco settlement are having an effect on public opinion. In fact, according to a poll conducted by Opinion Research Associates, 76 percent of Pine Bluff residents said the government has a responsibility to protect the health of its citizens.
Furthermore, the education efforts are bolstered by the experiences of regular citizens who are feeling the economic impact of unhealthy lifestyles. As the cost of health care rises, neither the business owner who pays for her employees’ health insurance nor the restaurant worker who doesn’t have insurance wants to suffer from the effects of second-hand smoke in the workplace.
So with Fayetteville and Pine Bluff representing opposite ends of the demographic spectrum, and with public opinion and economic pressures forcing more government action on public health issues, the stage is set for the introduction of smoking bans statewide. It is practically inevitable.
Already El Dorado has announced that it is considering an anti-smoking ordinance. Mayor Jim Dailey of Little Rock is appointing a task force that will conduct public forums on the subject. And Kevin Dedner, the Arkansas government relations director for the American Cancer Society (which actively campaigned for the Fayetteville and Pine Bluff smoking bans), confirmed that his organization will push for similar laws in Jonesboro and elsewhere.
“Pine Bluff puts us a step closer not only to a major metro area like Little Rock, but also making the entire state smoke free,” Dedner said. He added that the Cancer Society “likes to see two-thirds of the population covered by local ordinances before going for state ordinances.”
It may be difficult to achieve that threshold by the time the state legislature meets again in 2007. Two-thirds of the state population is 1.76 million, and the combined population of Fayetteville, Pine Bluff, Little Rock and Jonesboro is only about 350,000.
However, the same factors that pushed Pine Bluff to act could plausibly lead to a similar outcome in state government, where Medicare and Medicaid’s impact on the budget makes public health an even more important consideration.
At the very least, Pine Bluff’s progressive decision indicates that the anti-smoking crusade is no longer a fringe movement. It is now fueled by health and economic factors that cut across divisions of race, wealth and geography.
So the case of Pine Bluff deserves special attention, not because it was the first Arkansas city to ban smoking, but because it will not be the last.