My Two Cents: Attorney General's inaction a smokescreen for other motives?

If a tree falls in an empty forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

That age-old question came to mind as I considered Pierce County’s legally questionable smoking ban – in effect since Jan. 2 – and Attorney General Christine Gregoire’s curious recent statement describing as not definitive after all, a 1998 opinion from her office calling local smoking bans illegal.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health’s decision to prohibit smoking in virtually all indoor nontribal business would seem to be in defiance of state law.

Washington’s 1985 Clean Indoor Air Act states, “The legislature recognizes the increasing evidence that tobacco smoke in closely confined places may create a danger to the health of some citizens of this state. In order to protect the health and welfare of those citizens, it is necessary to prohibit smoking in public places except in areas designated as smoking areas.”

Those designated smoking areas include bars, taverns, bowling alleys, tobacco shops and restaurants – the very businesses that Pierce County now says cannot allow smoking.

Meanwhile, in 1998, the Seattle-King County Health Department aborted a similar effort to ban smoking after a lawyer in Gregoire’s office issued an opinion asserting that state law blocks local smoking bans. Gregoire, now distancing herself from that opinion, has said she will not assist anyone challenging the ban. (To be fair, it should be noted she has also said her office will not assist Tacoma-Pierce County.)

A nationally recognized anti-tobacco advocate and a leading Demoratic candidate for governor, perhaps Gregoire is biased when it comes to smoking-related issues. Be that as it may, it’s disturbing that the the top law enforcement official in the state is in effect acquiescing, allowing Tacoma-Pierce County to trump state law.

Why take this course of inaction when there are other more legally tenable options available? The Legislature could amend the Clean Indoor Air Act. Local governments could be given the right to set their own clean indoor air standards. A smoking ban could be put on the ballot for a public vote.

However, getting back to my original, though slightly modified, question: If Attorney General Christine Gregoire doesn’t enforce a state law, is it a state law?

“My Two Cents” is a weekly column where the author gets in his two cents worth in spite of the old saying that says you only get a penny for your thoughts.