Smoking ban being debated at NH Legion post
The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H.
HUDSON, N.H. — Five years ago, smokers who belonged to Legion posts and other private fraternal and social clubs exhaled a puff of relief when they learned their establishments would be exempted from the state's new rule banning smoking in public restaurants and bars.
But now veterans, family members and friends who call Hudson's American Legion Post 48 home are again holding their collective breaths as they await word whether a recent vote to ban smoking as of Aug. 1 will take effect or be overturned at an upcoming special meeting.
The vote, taken at a recent membership meeting presided over by the post's executive board, ignited such widespread and vociferous objection that Post 48 Commander Valerie Harnadek scheduled a special meeting for Monday, July 30. The meeting is open only to members.
"The bylaws allow me to call a special meeting at any time," said Harnadek, a nonsmoker who manages and tends bar in the post's lounge. A board member herself, Harnadek said most members, including her, objected more with the process than the outcome.
"A committee was formed, and the board has been going over this for a while now," Harnadek said.
It was generally understood, she said, that more research and discussion would take place before the board brought the matter up for a vote.
"All of a sudden, it was apparently brought up at that meeting and passed," she said.
Attempts to reach executive board members were unsuccessful.
State law prohibits smoking in public buildings, offices and workplaces, except in cases where smoking areas can be effectively segregated. Smoking also is banned in schools, child-care agencies, hospitals, grocery stores, elevators, buses and tramways.
Exempt, however, are social, fraternal and religious organizations, which include military posts, groups such as the Elks Lodge and private clubs like Nashua's Club National and Polish Club.
In Hudson, Harnadek and several members said the matter was decided by just a handful of people who happened to attend the meeting.
"The consensus here is, 'It's not the 'what,' it's the 'how,'" said Aaron Ives, a businessman and member of Post 48. "My biggest problem is they (some board members) haven't looked at all the options.
"The goal should be to strike a balance. As a businessman, I know how important it is to strike a balance," Ives said. "I contribute here, I help support this organization. But they don't want to hear from me."
Should it become smoke-free, Post 48 would probably draw national headlines and make history. Though it's very possible nonsmoking Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans posts exist in America, none can be found locally.
"Nope, there's no ban here; I've never heard it discussed," said Gelsomina Rubino, a bartender at James E. Coffey Post 3, Nashua's American Legion headquarters. "Everyone enjoys it, myself included," she added.
Though the smoke "can get a bit much" when it's crowded, Kristine Surdam, who tends bar both at Milford Legion Post 23 and Townsend, Mass., VFW Post 6538, said any talk of a ban has never made it out of the gate.
"Occasionally it gets touched upon, but there's an uproar, and it doesn't get very far," Surdam, a smoker herself, said. "Same in Townsend."
The story is the same over at Nashua Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 483 on Quincy Street.
"None of the private clubs have a ban, as far as I know. I really can't see them doing that," said part-time Post 483 bartender Cheryl Cummings.
Newly installed VFW Commander Barry Palmer said veterans' organizations are "one of the last vestiges" to remain free of smoking bans.
"They're the only places left that you still can smoke in," he said. "To have a veterans' bar with no smoking is ridiculous."
Several years ago, Palmer said, the national VFW leadership broached the subject -- and the results were predictable.
"It caused an uproar, and needless to say, it didn't materialize," he said.
National statistics appear to support the link Palmer draws between veterans and smoking: On average, veterans and service members smoke more than the general population, according to Dr. Michael Fiore, director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention. Among all Americans, he said, about 1 in 5 smokes.
In fact, according to a recent story in Legion Magazine, tobacco has accompanied soldiers to war as long as it has been available. Combat troops were once issued cigarettes in their rations, and service members could purchase cigarettes at greatly reduced prices from the PX or ship's store.
Indeed, the story stated, Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing reportedly said his soldiers needed "tobacco as much as bullets" to win at war.
Back in Hudson, should the vote to ban smoking be upheld, several members predict a bleak future for the Post 48 canteen.
"I'd leave in a heartbeat," said Dana Hart, a longtime member. "I was on the board last year. When it came up, I told them, 'Don't. Just don't.'"
The roughly 10 others present nodded their heads, some voicing hope it never comes to that.
"This is a comfortable place to come down, hang with friends, have a few laughs, maybe watch a ballgame," Bob Lefebvre, a Post 48 past commander, said. "We've always tried to accommodate everyone. We invested in a very good system," he added, pointing toward a series of vents connected to an air-filtration system commonly known as a "smoke eater."
Bill and Cathy Riley also said they doubt they'd keep coming if they couldn't smoke. As the current Post custodian, Bill Riley agreed with Lefebvre's assessment of the air system.
"The (air) circulation is very good in here, even with one of the units not working right now," he said.
At any given time, Riley figures, the ratio of smokers to nonsmokers is roughly 8 to 2.
"And those two don't care" that the other 80 percent smoke," he said. "Sometimes a group (of nonsmokers) comes in and sits over there," Riley added, pointing to tables across the room from the bar. "And they're just fine. Nobody complains."
Cathy Riley agreed. "All the nonsmokers I know are OK with it," she said. "I just think it's wrong (the board) is not making any provisions for the smokers."
Not least among members' concerns is the financial implications a smoking ban would almost certainly have on the canteen, and even on the Post itself.
"It could definitely create a hardship," Harnadek said. "Would we end up having to close someday down the line? I don't know. But if people aren't coming in, how can we stay open?
"These are things that weren't talked about," she added. "This is a big decision. It needs to be explored. It's not something that can happen overnight."