A legal challenge to Teton County's public smoking ban could have implications for a similar proposal in Natrona County.
Ban opponents filed suit last year claiming the Teton District Board of Health did not have the authority to pass a countywide prohibition on workplace smoking. Lawyers in the case are awaiting a key ruling by Ninth Judicial District Judge Timothy Day.
If Day sides with the opponents of the ban, his ruling could present a new obstacle for supporters of a workplace smoking ban in Natrona County. An advocacy group asked the Casper-Natrona County Board of Health to enact a smoke-free workplace regulation earlier this month.
Lawyer Steven Freudenthal, who represents the plaintiffs in the Teton County case, said the suit could have serious implications for Natrona County if Day rules in their favor.
"If we win on the proposition that the county health board doesn't have the authority to adopt such a resolution and ordinance, then they will have wasted a lot of time and money," he said. "The more important issue is whether or not a nonelected ... board should have the authority to engage in social engineering without explicit statutory authority."
Natrona County's health board could decide as soon as next month whether to pursue a workplace smoking ban of its own. Health Department Director Robert Harrington, who advises the board, said if opponents of the Teton ban prevail in their lawsuit, it would make it easier for critics to contest a Natrona Count regulation.
"That would probably set a precedent," he said.
The Teton District Board of Health enacted its public smoking ban in March 2009. Two months later, opponents -- including the Virginia Saloon, a bar that allowed smoking -- filed suit. Their attorneys, Freudenthal and Frank Hess, argued health board members did not have the power to enact such a ban.
"We believe the statute doesn't giver them that authority," Freudenthal said. "It's as simple as that."
Attorneys for Teton County disagree. In court documents, they note that state lawmakers gave the board power to enact rules "pertaining to the prevention of disease and the promotion of public health."
A ban that prevents people from inhaling second-hand smoke, which can increase the risk of cancer and heart disease, would qualify, they reason.
Both sides have filed motions asking Day to decide the case before it reaches trial. A decision is expected soon, but regardless of the outcome, the case could ultimately be appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the Teton health board has voluntarily agreed to not enforce its ban, according to Deputy County Attorney Nicole Krieger.
Despite the uncertainty, Smokefree Natrona County, the group advocating for the smoking restrictions, has asked the Natrona County health board to push forward anyway.
"We would prefer them to make a decision now because in the meantime, while that decision is being made, there are still workers and citizens who are inhaling second-hand smoke indoors," said Rachel Bailey, the group's campaign manager.
Bailey doesn't believe a ruling that favors opponents in Teton County would necessarily affect the rest of the state. But if the Natrona County health board decides against pursing a ban, Smokefree Natrona County would ask individual cities to impose a smoking regulation, she said.
Four Wyoming cities have already adopted smoking bans, none in Natrona County.