Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) If anyone loves the idea of gutting the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act besides Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, they’re staying mum.

For a minute, though, Chair Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, gave him the benefit of the doubt.

When exactly zero people stood up in the room to testify in favor of the bill to undo enforcement of the law that prohibits indoor smoking, Small mulled a possibility.

“They must be beating each other up in the hallway right now to get in,” Small said.

Tuesday, Trebas presented a second attempt to curtail Montana’s prohibitions on indoor smoking. The first, Senate Bill 205, would have let private businesses make their own decisions on indoor smoking, but it was tabled in committee on a 9-0 vote.

Senate Bill 371 would take a different approach by stopping local health authorities from being able to enforce the act, which passed in 2005 and took full effect in 2009. SB 371 also would remove penalties against businesses.

Trebas said the bill was more about pushing back against government authority – whose tentacles have reached too far into people’s lives – than smoking itself. He said he doesn’t condone smoking.

“It’s an expensive and terrible habit,” he said.

Many of the same health advocates opposed this bill as the earlier one: the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, Montana Hospital Association, Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

In response to questioning by Sen. Christopher Pope, D-Bozeman, Heather O’Hara, with the Montana Hospital Association, said 5.9% of Montanans have COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

It’s related to smoking, and it cost the U.S. $30 billion in 2010, she said; a 2018 study found the cost to employers for a COPD-afflicted worker is $6,650 a year, nearly double for a worker who does not have the condition.

Sen. Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge, said the comments of Choteau Mayor Chris Hindoien struck him. Hindoien is not only a cancer survivor, he’s also working on economic development, and he doesn’t think indoor smoking will help small communities attract workers.

Gillespie figured the mayor made a good point.

“It’s going to be awfully tough to get people to work in that kind of environment,” Gillespie said. “So would you care to comment on that?”

In general, Trebas said he didn’t care for the way health officers restricted people during the height of the pandemic. He also said people already know smoking is bad for them.

As for work, people are free to choose their place of employment, Trebas said. He’s chosen to work on tires and in car detailing, for example.

“I don’t think it’s going to wreck an economy if … this bill goes through,” Trebas said.

Of course, the economy wasn’t the only worry.

Lynne Foss, a pediatric nurse practitioner, said second-hand smoke harms children because it can worsen ear infections, impair lung function, affect fetuses, and increase the risk of sudden infant death.

According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, just two businesses have received citations in the past five years related to the Clean Indoor Air Act, and most receive education or warning letters instead.

In the hearing for SB 205, health advocates said the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act needs to be strengthened instead, and they made the same call Tuesday.

Beth Morrison, of Great Falls, said the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act changed her life and the lives of Montanans for the better.

“If this is passed, it will render the Clean Indoor Air Act unenforceable and meaningless … Please do not let this happen on your watch,” Morrison said.

The committee did not take immediate action Tuesday.