State - Grand Rapids Veterans' lodges want exemption from state's May 1 smoking ban

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) -- Veterans clubs have started a petition drive to have their lodges exempted from Michigan's smoking ban when it goes into effect May 1.

So far, 1,500 members of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups have signed the petitions.

Organizers hope to present them April 3 to lawmakers they've invited to the Royal Canadian Legion Post 84 in Royal Oak, The Grand Rapids Press reported Sunday.

At American Legion Post 179 in Grandville, Army veteran Mike Stapleton of Jenison and others have signed the petition.

"It's wrong for lawmakers to tell us private clubs what to do," said Stapleton, 61, of Jenison, who served in the Vietnam and Desert Storm wars. "This (smoking) should be up to members. When we were under fire, being shot at and bombed, we'd smoke when we got a break to calm our nerves and relax."

The smoking ban covers all bars, restaurants and workplaces, but cigar bars and the gaming floors of existing casinos are exempt.

Laura Van Heest, cessation and education coordinator for Tobacco Free Partners in Grand Rapids, said she doesn't want to see the law weakened with more exemptions. She said her group is working with others on a May 1 event that includes discounts at restaurants.

"Some people think this law will be so terribly restrictive, but it is not as bad as they think," Van Heest said. "The older population of veterans have a higher smoking rate, but veterans coming out now have the same smoking rate as the national average."

Linda Cebula, an auxiliary member of Legion Post 179, helped coordinate the petition drive with Steve Mace, first vice commander of the Royal Canadian Legion Post 84.

"This is not a pro-smoking initiative," said Cebula, adding that several Grand Rapids area clubs had members sign. "We just want the right to decide. There is a concern that clubs could close like some others in states that have smoking bans did."

Ken Smith, commander of American Legion Post 154 in Wyoming, said smoking and nonsmoking members were eager to sign the petition because of the sacrifices veterans have made for this country.

In February, Rep. Douglas Geiss, D-Taylor, introduced a bill that would not exempt private clubs but allow veterans clubs and others to have a legal smoking room with air filtration systems.

"I think this is a fair compromise," said Geiss, an engineer, who admits it will be tough to get the bill passed.

Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, who served in the U.S. Air Force, signed the petition at Post 179.

"I voted against the bill because it's more government intrusion on private enterprise," he said.

Published: Wed, Mar 24, 2010