Veterans organizations prepare for new smoking law
by Paige Rentz
Jun 29, 2013 | 2996 views |  0 comments | 180 180 recommendations | email to a friend | print
American Legion Post 26 members enjoying their last weekend to smoke Friday afternoon. Jerry Wisdom lights up. Photo by Bill Wilson.
American Legion Post 26 members enjoying their last weekend to smoke Friday afternoon. Jerry Wisdom lights up. Photo by Bill Wilson.
“I’ll miss this place,” said Carole Ward as she sipped a beer at the bar in Anniston’s American Legion Post 26. The 70-year-old, who smokes about three-quarters of a pack of cigarettes daily, said she’s been coming to the post for about 8 years to relax with friends, but she can’t relax if she can’t light up inside.

Ward will be out of luck on Monday, when a new city law restricting smoking in public places means members will be forced to head outside to smoke.

While many of the regulars at the bars hosted by Anniston veterans organizations are decrying the change, some post leaders hope the change may appeal more broadly to their established membership or draw new faces who might breathe easier in a smoke-free atmosphere.

Ben Cunningham, commander of Post 26, is looking forward to Monday and the opportunity to scrub the post club clean.

“I’m hoping if we clean the post up, and lighten it up, freshen it up, perhaps we’ll start to see members we haven’t seen in the past on a regular basis,” he said.

But it won’t be easy to get rid of the decades of nicotine and smoky smell that has accumulated inside. “You could walk in right now, and if you’re a non-smoker, it smells like an ashtray. It’s not very inviting.”

Kelly Wright, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 924 and a non-smoker, wasn’t as enthusiastic about the new restrictions.

“Our hope was truly that the ordinance would be changed,” he said. But since that hasn’t happened, Wright has prepared for the new rules and is ready to comply on Monday.

“I think everyone would hope that it would bring some kind of positive change to the place,” he said.

Wright said that for a number of the VFW’s older members, their health keeps them from coming out as often as they might, something that having a smoke-free environment may make easier.

Post 924’s members are veterans of World War II all the way through the most recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Wright served. The majority, he said, served during Vietnam. In Alabama, more than 80 percent of the organization’s members are older than 55.

He notes also that new, younger members are going to be the livelihood of the organization, and they might be more likely to patronize the hall’s bar with a newer, cleaner environment.

Like the VFW, the bulk of Post 26’s members, including Cunningham, are Vietnam-era veterans. But the post’s membership ranges from World War II to more recent conflicts such as Grenada and the Gulf War, which reflects the national membership.

According to John Raughter, communications director at the American Legion’s national headquarters, the organization boasts more than 2.4 million members, more than a million of whom are Vietnam-era veterans. He said between 10 and 20 percent of its members have served since 1990.

More than 26 percent of Alabama’s 45- to 64-year-olds smoke, the demographic that most closely aligns with Vietnam-era service members and the bulk of members of local veterans’ organizations. Nearly 30 percent of the state’s 18-to-24-year-olds smoke, but that rate drops to 23.3 percent for 25-to-44-year-olds. Less than 8 percent of the state’s oldest residents smoke.

For the smokers at their bars, the organizations will likely build a deck or patio where they can light up.

“Other members have said, ‘You know, this may be what I needed to quit; I’m at least going to cut back,’” Cunningham said.

“I hate to see it run people off,” Wright said, “so I hope we can find a balance there somehow.”

Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.

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