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Utah Senate votes down bill to eliminate S.L. airport smoking rooms

FILE: Travelers use a smoking room at Salt Lake City International Airport, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015.
FILE: Travelers use a smoking room at Salt Lake City International Airport, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015.
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Citing concerns about Utah's image and personal freedom, the state Senate narrowly snuffed a proposal Tuesday to remove smoking rooms from the Salt Lake City International Airport.

But Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said he intends to talk to some of his colleagues about reconsidering SB61 after they voted it down 15-14.

"The image thing kind of threw me off guard. I didn't see that coming," he said after the Senate debate.

With reconstruction of the Salt Lake airport underway and new Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski supporting a smoking ban, Vickers said now is an opportune time to change the policy.

The Salt Lake City International Airport has five smoking lounges, but airport officials planned to reduce that to two when terminal reconstruction finishes in 2020. The bill was to take effect January 2017. Only seven of the nation's busiest airports still allow smoking, Vickers said.

Biskupski isn't ready to let the bill go, and spokesman Matthew Rojas said the mayor's office is working to bring it up again.

"It’s not the end of this discussion and this movement,” he said. "Stay tuned."

Rojas said the city hasn't decided whether to close the smoking rooms if Vickers' bill dies this year. He said the mayor could do it through executive action but prefers the Legislature solidify in law that it's a public health issue. Also, a future mayor could undo an executive action, he said.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said Salt Lake City carries a "different brand" and has to be careful about how people view it. He told a story about a Catholic nun from Utah who on a flight years ago had a passenger ask her if she minded him smoking. When she said yes, he replied, "You damn Mormons are all alike."

"I'm very nervous about giving Salt Lake City a different image because people already have an image of Salt Lake City that we damn Mormons are all alike," Hillyard said.

Vickers said during the Senate debate he could understand the argument that Utah would look "weird" if it were the first state to ban smoking in airports. He told his colleagues to travel to other states if they think it's a perception issue.

"This is a not a new, revolutionary idea. This is something that has happened across the country. The traveling public is very much used to it," he said. "If we're the only ones standing at the end of the day, then the perception is going to be there. But it's not going to be the perception you want."

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said she finds smoking "frustrating" and "disgusting," but it's not against the law. Eliminating smoking rooms, she said, would cause smokers to congregate outside the airport doors. She said she doesn't want Salt Lake City known as having the airport where people have to walk through smoke to get inside.

Smoking is a public health crisis and secondhand smoke is real, said Senate Assistant Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, in voting for the bill.

"This is not about the person's individual choice to kill themselves and get sick. This is about everybody else that has to use the airport because it’s the only mode of transportation if you have to take a flight somewhere," she said.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he doesn't understand why Utah would want to tell people they can't smoke in ventilated lounges where the smoke isn't affecting anyone.

"I think of all states we should be welcoming smokers here," he said.

Contributing: Katie McKellar


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