Still one more critical vote necessary for Monday night
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH – A bill that would clear the air in restaurants and bars and give county governments some leeway to further restrict smoking in public places passed second reading in the Senate Thursday 26 to 18 and will be back on the floor for a final vote Monday night.
“We’re really not going far enough with this bill, but be what it may, this is an opportunity for us to make a difference and to make a change and to make a statement for the future of North Carolina, if we would have the guts to do it,” said Sen. Tony Foriest (D-Alamance), whose comments brought a smattering of applause as some 40 minutes of debate drew to a close.
House Bill 2 originally called for an end to smoking in all workplaces, but by the time it reached the Senate this week, had been changed to target restaurants and bars. The bill would allow smoking on restaurant patios that are not enclosed, in private clubs or country clubs, in designated smoking rooms in hotels and in cigar bars. It would allow local governments to make policies more restrictive than the state law but only within certain guidelines.
Sen. William Purcell (D-Scotland) who had sponsored S 205, the bill’s companion in the Senate, reminded fellow lawmakers that, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States. He said non-smokers routinely exposed to secondhand smoke have a 50 percent increase in their risk of developing lung cancer and that smoke free laws in other places had reduced the rate of heart attacks by 41 percent.
“The government already protects restaurant and bar customers with smoke alarms, with exit signs, with sprinkler systems, with food inspections,” Purcell said. “They, as well as workers, deserve clean air to breathe …”
But at least nine Senators argued passionately against the bill, which many viewed as an infringement on the rights of small business owners.
Sen. Jim Jacumin (R-Burke) said he did not believe secondhand smoke could be as dangerous as reported and that smoking does not increase taxpayers’ overall healthcare costs because of smokers’ shortened life spans. He introduced an amendment similar to one adopted by the House that would allow business owners to opt out of the smoking ban by not hiring anyone under 18 years of age, posting “smoking allowed” signs on doors and in ads and preventing smoke from migrating to other businesses where it is not allowed. He said his amendment would require restaurant owners to declare their establishments smoking or non-smoking and that those that allowed any smoking at all would be bound by the three requirements. Jacumin also opposed allowing local governing bodies to restrict smoking, saying that it would force many small businesses to close their doors.
“It (the bill) would take a legal activity and make it illegal on private property,” he argued. “Surely we can agree on a more common sense, practical approach.”
Jacumin’s amendment failed 20 to 26, but the Senate did adopt one change to the bill, a proposal by Sen. Peter Brunstetter (R-Forsyth) to require that any local smoking restrictions be approved by county commissioners.
“This makes clear that anything done by a Board of Health would have to be approved through an ordinance by a Board of County Commissioners,” Brunstetter said of the amendment, which had Purcell’s support.
Many of the senators opposing the bill argued, in essence, that the healthcare benefit of reducing secondhand smoke was not worth any infringement of business owners’ freedoms.
“The right to choose and the right to private property are God-given and constitutionally protected rights and we hold them dear,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “But we are glad to see that many of our Senators realize that these rights should never outweigh the right to life and to health.”
Sen. Charles Alberston (D-Duplin) pointed out that many of our rights are tempered by life-saving regulations.
“We know that seat belts save lives. That was a good thing when that law was put in place and I believe this will save lives too,” he said.
The North Carolina Alliance for Health, which has pushed for a smoking ban in all workplaces, concurs.
“While this bill won’t protect everyone, it is a good place to start,” said Pam Seamans, the organization’s policy director. “On the one hand we are disappointed that it doesn’t cover all work sites, but we are encouraged that a decent number of people – those in restaurants and bars – would be protected.”
Seamans said amendments are expected to be introduced before Monday night’s vote. If the bill wins final approval in the Senate, it would go back to the House, which has already approved a different version of the legislation. There, sponsor Rep. Hugh Holliman (D-Davidson) could either ask for a concurrence vote or send the bill into conference committee to try to find common ground.
The Christian Action League joins the N.C. Alliance for Health in reminding supporters to encourage their senators to vote Yes to HB 2 and No to amendments that would weaken the bill.
“Remind your lawmakers that every year, exposure to secondhand smoke kills 1,600 North Carolinians,” said the Rev. Creech. “We can’t ignore that fact, especially when there is something that can be done about it.”