Here in the CNMI, several bills have been introduced that would amend the Smoke-Free Air Act of 2010 in order to expand smoking in public places. One of the main objectives of these bills is to increase the percentage of smoking-designated rooms in hotels in response to requests made by the hospitality industry and the Saipan Chamber of Commerce. Currently, CNMI hotels are allowed to designate up to 20% of their rooms as smoking rooms. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed House Bill 17-70, HS1 to permit hotels to designate up to 80% of their rooms for smoking. (The original bill also proposed to allow smoking in restaurants, but that provision was deleted in the version that ultimately passed the House.) The House bill is now before the Senate for action, along with another bill, Senate Bill 17-37, which proposes to allow hotels to designate up to 30% of their rooms for smoking, and to further permit smoking in professional offices and in bars (including attached bars in restaurants) as long as the areas are “fully ventilated.” (The law presently allows smoking in bars and attached bars in restaurants after the kitchens have closed, provided that smoke from these places does not infiltrate into areas where smoking is prohibited). Some senators have indicated that additional amendments are likely to be proposed on the Senate floor at their next session, including one that will limit the scope of legislation to allow smoking in up to 30% of hotel rooms and balconies only, and another that would allow smoking in restaurants.
Both the House and the Senate bills indicate that economic reasons are the primary force behind the effort to expand smoking areas in the CNMI. Neither bill, however, cites any studies to show that the CNMI’s Smoke-Free Air Act has had any negative economic impact on the hospitality industry, or on any other industry. The statistics that are cited in the bills relate to the prevalence of smoking in countries from which many of the CNMI's tourists originate; however, these statistics warrant further examination. For example, Senate Bill 17-37 states that 350 million people smoke in China; this equates to approximately less than 30% of China’s total population. In other words, more than 70% of the people in China do not smoke. As another example, the same bill states that 40% of the Japanese male population are smokers; overall, however, the actual prevalence of smoking in Japan as of 2010 is approximately 24%, a record low for that country for the 15th consecutive year. Russia has a high prevalence of smoking (53% according to the Senate bill, but more like 43% according to other reports), but even Russia is today contemplating smoke-free laws for public places.
Meanwhile, the Community Guidance Center at the Department of Public Health is planning to conduct surveys of CNMI tourists regarding their views of the CNMI’s smoke-free law, and to compile local tobacco-related data including tobacco-related deaths, medical referral costs, and other health and economic impacts. Many health advocates believe that more objective studies on the economic and health impacts of the CNMI’s Smoke-Free Air Act, as well as more public hearings, are critical for informing the community and policymakers in making evidence-based decisions regarding policies that affect public health.