Rhode Island is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its smoke-free workplaces law Thursday, with a special nod to East Greenwich. The law went into effect on March 1, 2005, mandating that all restaurants, bars, public and private indoor workplaces become smoke free.
The celebrants marking the anniversary today at a gathering in Cranston told East Greenwich News this week the ban may never have happened when it did but for the first smoke-free ordinance in the state adopted by East Greenwich five years earlier.
“EG was key because that is where the homegrown advocates were and they were able to lobby at the Statehouse against the opposition by saying, ‘Our town is doing OK,’” said Elizabeth Dennigan, former state rep from East Providence and one of the leaders in the statewide fight to enact the ban. “The East Greenwich people were actually the leaders in the state effort.”
Today Dennigan and and former R.I. Health Department director Dr. Patricia Nolan are co-chairs of 10th Anniversary Celebration of the 2004 Public Health and Workplaces Safety Act, considered a public health milestone because for the first time health and safety protections from exposure to secondhand smoke exposure had the force of law.
Dennigan cited the work of East Greenwich Drug Program Director Bob Houghtaling, the prime mover behind the East Greenwich ordinance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, who brought his leadership and troops to the state fight.
“Bob Houghtaling was fantastic in this whole effort,” Dennigan said. “He was very diplomatic and tireless as he went from community to community meeting with small groups to advocate for the statewide law. He created a very grassroots effort in East Greenwich and then did the same across the entire state.”
The first smoke puffs in the battle went aloft in 1991 when then East Greenwich Town Manager Bill Sequino, who had quit smoking a few days before, proposed a no-smoking ban in all town government buildings.
By 2000 the effort to ban smoking in the town’s restaurants and bars was roiling the waters in the campaigns for Town Council. Restaurant owners opposed to the local ban worked against two Republican council members who voted for the ban in April. It was due to go into effect in December of 2000.
Carl I. Hoyer, one of the Republicans, said this week he would do same thing all over again. He was seeking his third term in 2000 “when we decided to write the ordinance that would make the restaurants have two separate facilities” for smokers and nonsmokers.
“Roughly three quarters of the public did not smoke at the time and that is a pretty large majority, so the ordinance made sense to us,” Hoyer said.
Not so much to the restaurant and bar owners, he said.
“The restaurateurs had a fit, because they said it would cost them a lot of money to make two separate areas in their businesses,” Hoyer said. “The restaurateurs vowed they would get us. There was this group called Common Sense Candidates and we knew who was behind it. They put out unsigned flyers all over town.”
Three of the four candidates who voted for the ban seven months earlier lost at the polls in November 2000. Hoyer, Marion Leone and Bob Holbrook lost. The council member who sponsored the ordinance, Vincent Bradley, hung on.
After the General Assembly approved the measure and then after subsequent victories by the town in Superior Court and the State Supreme Court, Hoyer said that he and other defeated candidates felt a sense of vindication “because we did the right thing.”
For Houghtaling, “It became so much bigger than health and safety, there were political dynamics and financial concerns’ it ended up in court and it impacted elections.”
As far as Houghtaling is concerned, “Those who advocated for it put their political careers on the line. I admire them.”
Doing the right thing was to put oneself in harm’s way for a town employee, said retired police department juvenile officer Tom Joyce. Joyce shared his police headquarters office with Houghtaling, so he had a front row seat to the tobacco tussle.
“Bob worked for the town and the town, its administration, and department heads were against it,” Joyce said. “It took a lot of nerve to do what he did.”
“There were threats,” admitted Houghtaling. A Town Council member called me and he was concerned that I wouldn’t stop. Some on the council put pressure on me to stop. But I thought how I didn’t want my legacy someday to be, ‘Oh, Mr. Houghtaling is the guy who rolled over.’”
Houghtaling and Citizens for Citizens and the town drug program were viewed differently after the ordinance was in place.
“We got out of the realm of being viewed as just being nice to kids after school. People saw how the drug program could create something, change policy and bring social change.”
Town Council meetings and hearings on the ordinance were packed and loud.
Houghtaling arrived one night in front of Town Hall with a busload of town kids who he had taken to Boston that day to see the movie, “The Insider,” a Russell Crowe and Al Pacino movie about a whistleblower in the tobacco industry. The kids streamed into Council Chambers for a council meeting when the no-smoking ordinance was on the agenda.
“A number of the kids wanted to participate in advocacy … and the parents and the kids just jumped right in. It was like a battery charge. It brought new energy and synergy to the town. It wasn’t drudgery,” Houghtaling said.
One of the kids who got up to voice an opinion in Town Hall and in Swift Gym when she was a diminutive middle school student and later as a high school student before General Assembly for the statewide ban was Sulina Mohanty. Today she is director of Alumni Affairs and Regional Team Strategy for Teach for America in Providence and she said the experience in the smoking ban effort set her course in life.
“The first time I spoke to the Town Council I was nervous,” said Mohanty, 29, this week. “I knew it was a contentious issue. But I got over that and I believed in it because what was behind the ordinance was really important for the people in our community and I knew that it would have a positive impact for our town.”
She took lessons from her participation that she practices today.
“I made a strong effort to understand the perspective of the people on the other side of the issue,” she said. “I recognized their point of view. I realized that other things were involved, that it wasn’t cut and dry and that these people on the other side of the issue are good at heart and worried about their businesses, their employees and the impact they feared of a loss of business.”
After graduating from URI with a degree in human development and family studies and a minor leadership studies and political science, she took aim at a career.
“It kicked off my involvement in public engagement for the rest of my life,” she said.
Mohanty, the other students and parents had stepped into a political maelstrom. The leadership of the business groups that opposed the ordinance have turned over several times in the interceding years, but it seems their fears never came to fruition.
Joyce marvels at the memory of one hearing at Swift Gym when both sides brought their forces forward. The East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce threw its weight behind the campaign against the ordinance and a group of local restaurant owners called in the Hospitality Association of Rhode Island to join the fray.
“The police lieutenant on duty at the hearing was Geoffrey Rinn and he was in uniform, when he started walking to the microphone to testify,” Joyce said. “The police chief was there with entire council and the town manager and here comes Lieutenant Rinn and he is in uniform and he is working for them and he comes walking up to the microphone. Everyone was looking at him. That was big that he was in uniform and on duty. And he spoke in favor of Bob and the ordinance.”
Houghtaling recalls the effort in East Greenwich as a time when “we were rocking and rolling.”
“It was something we were glad that we did. We were a little bit ahead of the curve. And there was some risk,” Houghtaling said.
The opponents were fearful that the ordinance would result in lost business and profits.
“As things turned out the restaurant business has thrived,” Houghtaling said, noting that East Greenwich has become one of the state’s main dining destinations.
Bob Houghtaling is to be honored at Thursday’s commemoration – congratulations, Bob!
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