SALT LAKE CITY — A new law being proposed in the 2016 Utah legislative session could shut down the smoking rooms at the Salt Lake City International Airport.
Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is sponsoring SB61, a bill that would ban smoking in the airport altogether by striking the terminal smoking lounge exception from the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act.
What's more, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski supports the bill — a 180 degree turn from the stance former Mayor Ralph Becker's administration previously took on the issue.
"Salt Lake City is an anomaly," Biskupski spokesman Matthew Rojas said, since it's one of only seven airports of the top 35 busiest airports in the U.S. that provides smoking rooms. "The mayor sees this as an issue of public health."
The bill surfaced after Vickers, who is also a pharmacist, was approached by health groups seeking to abolish the airport's smoking lounges. Last summer, smoke-free advocates decried the city's decision to include the smoking rooms in design plans for the airport's terminal redevelopment project.
Currently, Salt Lake's airport has five smoking lounges, but airport officials had planned to downsize to two when terminals are rebuilt. The construction completion date is slated for 2020.
But if Vickers' bill passes, depending on its effective date, it could permanently seal the lounge's doors at the end of the 2016 legislative session.
"We think the majority of the public have the right to breathe clean air, and that should extend to the airport as well," said Brook Carlisle, government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
Carlisle said her organization is one of the health groups that came to Vickers for help when discussions with Salt Lake officials did not prevent plans to include the smoking rooms in the new terminals.
Carlisle cited a 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found smoking rooms, including the rooms at Salt Lake City's airport, did not effectively eliminate all secondhand smoke.
But in response to the CDC study, city officials previously pointed to a 2013 city-conducted study that found no pollution level difference between areas near smoking rooms and more remote concourse areas. They claimed the state-of-the-art ventilation systems were effectively limiting travelers' exposure to secondhand smoke.
City officials also argued to keep the lounges to accommodate smokers who might otherwise smoke in improper areas or crowd screening lines by having to exit and re-enter security checkpoints in order to smoke outside, airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said.
Volmer said those concerns still remain, but airport officials are "working closely with the mayor's office on how to best move forward."
"We'd have to look at other options for smokers if we don't have smoking rooms," she said.
Carlisle said she is "thrilled" Biskupski has chosen to take a strong position against the smoking rooms, although that won't stop health groups from pushing Vickers' bill forward.
"Even if the city would close (the rooms) on their own, we would feel much more secure if that loophole was gone from state law," Carlisle said. "If (Biskupski) isn't mayor in 10 years, the next administration would be well within their legal rights to decide something else. We don't want to leave that open to chance."
When asked if the airport might shut down its smoking rooms even before Vickers' bill goes through the legislative process, Volmer said she wasn't sure because airport officials are still working with the mayor's office to determine the smoking rooms' future.
"This is really a glaring exception," Carlisle said. "We just think it's time that Salt Lake City comes in line with a lot of the other large airports in the country."