Tricky questions in anti-smoking quest
Now that the State Health Department has awarded the $700,000 anti-tobacco campaign contract to the company that lobbied to clarify Nevada's Indoor Clean Air Act to allow taverns to serve food where smoking is allowed, most officials seem satisfied that questions about conflicts or commitment to the cause have been satisfied.
But critics of the contract award to R&R Partners, whose principle Utah principal is known as one of Gov. Gary Herbert's most trusted political advisors, are waiting for the next shoe to drop: What happens when the Indoor Clean Air Act fight comes to the new Salt Lake City Airport to be constructed in the next few years?
Rescue Social Change Group, one of the bidders that lost out to R&R, filed a protest, alleging R&R had a conflict it didn't disclose because of its work on behalf of the Nevada Resort Association that led to a more lenient policy on smoking areas in taverns.
By winning the contract in Utah, R&R's charge will be an advertising and educational campaign to reduce, not encourage, smoking.
Health Department Director David Patton was one of those who expressed concern about R&R's work in Nevada after his department awarded the contract to R&R because, he said in a letter to the State Purchasing Department, the Health Department did not know about the R&R's role in the Nevada legislation.
But former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Zimmerman, who spoke on behalf of R&R at the protest hearing, pointed out there was nothing in the RFP that required the bidders to disclose their lobbying work in other states.
"You may want to put provisions in (the contract) that make sure that R&R's skirts are completelyl clean going forward from any affliation with anything that looks like it's pro smoking," Zimmerman said.
"But did they fail to comply with your RFP? I don't think legally there is any way you can say they failed to comply with the RFP. You never defined conflict of interest."
After the hearing and the Purchasing Department's conclusion that there was no conflict, Patton said he was satisfied R&R will do a good job for smoking cessation education for Utah. And Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, one of the leading anti-tobacco crusaders in the Legislature, says he is willing to take a wait-and-see attitude because he trusts the professionalism of those charged with awarding the contract.
But one comment made during the hearing, albeit hypothetically, by one of the attorneys representing R&R has critics sitting up and taking notice concerning a future hurdle that must be faced in the anti-smoking wars.
"So suppose R&R represented the Salt Lake Airport Authority that lobbied for an exception to the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act to allow designated, segregated smoking places. Would that be a conflict of interest? I don't think so," said attorney Jim Jardine. He was speaking to Assistant Attorney General Alan Bachman, who was representing the Purchasing Department, and both were speaking hypothetically as to what might constitute a conflict for a company whose contract is to campaign against tobacco interests.
But because R&R already has a proven track record of lobbying on Indoor Clean Air Act issues and Mike Zuhl, the government affairs director for R&R in Utah, is a member of the Salt Lake Airport Authority Board, that hypothetical comment triggered a new concern for smoking opponents.
Salt Lake is building a new airport in the next few years and the issue of enclosed, segregated smoking areas in the new airport will be a hot one.
Currently, Salt Lake is one of just five major airport locations that allows for smoking in designated areas inside the airport.
And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a study that found ventilated smoking rooms and designated smoking areas are not effective in preventing other passengers from suffering the effects of second-hand smoke.
Zuhl told me the Airport Authority Board is advisory and he doubts it would deal at all with the issue of designated smoking rooms. But if it did and R&R was involved in the debate, he would recuse himself.