In 2016, Kansas State Fair smokers will have to watch where they light up.

In a tight vote and after much debate, fair board members Tuesday passed a smoking policy that establishes designated smoking areas across the grounds.

The state fair will join more than 15 other state fairs across the nation that have implemented outdoor smoking restrictions – many in the past five years.

Fair board members said the time frame was too short to have the policy take effect for the September 2015 state fair. Instead, fair staff will come back with suggestions for smoking locations and how the new policy will work, with implementation in September 2016.

Fair board member Jackie McClaskey, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture, made the motion after board members voted down a measure that would have extended the fair’s nonsmoking areas. Members voted 6 to 5 to pass McClaskey’s motion, with Fair Board President Harmon Bliss the deciding vote.

“It’s a very difficult decision but one that had to be made,” said board member Tom Tunnell, president of the Kansas Grain and Feed Association, who voted in favor of the measure.

Board member Brad Rayl asked that his name be on the record as a no vote. 

“This is something the staff will start working toward,” said Fair Manager Denny Stoecklein. “We’ll determine the quantity and locations in the next several months.”

The concept              

The idea surfaced a year ago when a Reno County youth organization, Communities that Care – which is aimed at drug and alcohol prevention - brought up the idea.

In March 2014, the group rolled a transparent case of 2,650 cigarette butts they had collected in one hour at the fair into a fair board meeting. About 16 members traveled to Manhattan in March to press the issue further, showing fair board members a map of proposed smoking areas across the grounds. They also told the board that CTC would donate five tents, at $374 a tent, which could be put up in the designated areas.

Fair board members addressed the request at their annual retreat and meeting Tuesday in Dodge City.

At present, smoking is not allowed in buildings and the grandstand seating area, said Stoecklein. The carnival company also has a policy in its “kiddie land” area.

Some board members didn’t realize there wasn't a policy for more congested areas, like the Bretz & Young Injury Lawyers Arena, Gottschalk Park bleachers or the Lake Talbott stage area.

But the issue, however, wasn’t resolved easily, with board members weighing in on the idea.

“We all know smoking is bad for us,” said Bliss, a Hodgeman County teacher. “And I don’t like smoke being blown in my face. But I would rather see four or five dotting the skyline smoking than 20 people in a tent smoking. It’s just my personal opinion and just one person’s opinion.”

Rayl mentioned that it would be tough to enforce such a policy. Others said it could affect attendance, with roughly 20 percent – or about 78,000 patrons – being smokers.

Board member Virginia Crossland-Macha expressed concern that vendors who smoke or might have employees who smoke wouldn't have time to go to a designated smoking area.

Monica Lair, who said she used to work at Walt Disney World, noted that the family amusement park has designated smoking areas.

“Quite a few of my friends smoked,” said Lair, who later voted against the final motion. “And it really wasn’t a large inconvenience. There were places you go.”

Using staff recommendation, board member Jeff Deeds, a Goodland-area farmer, made a motion to expand the nonsmoking areas to areas where people congregate, including the Bretz arena, Gottschalk event area, Lake Talbott seating area, the milk parlor seating, the train and paddle boat area, as well as the giant slide.

Board members voted it down, 5 to 4. Bliss, as president, didn’t vote, nor did board member Sue Schlapp, who was conferenced in and didn’t hear the motion.

McClaskey said she voted no because she thought it would be easier to manage designated smoking areas rather than an expansion of no-smoking areas.

“No smoking except in designated areas – that is a better sell,” she said.

New board member Karen Hibbard, director of the Manhattan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Symphony in the Flint Hills has a smoking tent. And McClaskey noted that the Kansas City Royals have a designated smoking area.

In the end, the decision came down to President Bliss, who broke the tie on the issue.

“Number one, I appreciate each side,” Bliss said. “I think down the road, if we don’t get things laid out right, we can fix it and work on it.”

More details to come                

Stoecklein said details would need to be worked out, including whether to allow smoking at outdoor eating establishments like the wine garden or the fair’s beer gardens.

He already has been in contact with other fairs about how they implemented similar policies.

The News, which did its own investigation this month, found no fairs with smoking policies reporting a drop in attendance due to enacting smoking policies.

The Utah State Fair, which has an attendance of around 300,000, implemented designated smoking areas in 2010, said fair spokesman Jeff Kooring. However, fair officials have considered going smoke-free. 

"The first year that we implemented it, we had one written complaint – from a vendor – that didn’t like the change, but we had more positive comments than negative," Kooring said. "We have never actively policed it, just politely asked that people comply if they are smoking in an area other than that which is designated."

As for the 150-member Communities that Care group, Maddie Page, 18, who helped spearhead the effort for the past two years, couldn't be more excited to learn the news.

The goal was to create a healthy, family-friendly environment.

Focused on drug and alcohol prevention, the group worked after school and at home researching the issue. Page, who will attend the University of Kansas in the fall, said she and her peers felt that being from Hutchinson, it was their responsibly to tackle the project.

“We felt like it was our town and our duty to clean it up,” she said.

“It’s exciting,” she added, noting that she and other members had been text messaging about it Tuesday afternoon. “It’s very exciting that they are willing to look into a change like this and the difference it can make at the state fair.”

Colton Harper, 18, admitted he was surprised when he heard the news from their director, Carla Smith. The fair board, he said, didn’t respond too much when CTC had presented to them in the past.

“It’s great to see they took it to heart, that they really did give some thought to it – more so than it looked like from the outside,” said Harper, who will attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln this fall.

Moreover, he added, he and fellow students made a difference.

“Collectively, we sparked change,” he said.

Fair patrons, however, voiced strong opinions both ways on the decision, commenting on The News’ Facebook page Tuesday afternoon.

“YAY! I no longer have to feel like I licked an ashtray and don’t have to worry about burns from people with their cigarettes! Great job!” stated Michelle Cobb.

Not everyone was so excited. Lucas Idler wrote he didn’t think many people would pay attention to it.

“It’s an outside event, no harm done to anyone that doesn’t smoke,” he stated. “It’s outside. Guess next they will ban unhealthy foods and drinks too. Wouldn’t want to harm peoples healths (sic) by offering all that junk food.”