By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH – A bill to protect North Carolinians from the dangers of secondhand smoke could burn out when it comes to the Senate floor this coming week unless lawmakers across the state hear a strong message from their constituents.
“We are asking folks to contact their Senators as soon as possible to urge them to support House Bill 2 – Prohibit Smoking in Public and Workplaces – for the sake of our state’s health,” said the Rev. Mark Creech. “We know that tobacco not only injures and kills those who use it, but it takes the lives of many who have not chosen it. In fact, secondhand smoke kills 1,600 people in our state each year.”
HB 2 was headed to the Senate floor on Thursday, but leaders in the fight decided to hold the bill until this coming week after it was discovered that the vote count might be too close and that one lawmaker supportive of the measure was out sick.
The bill, which would make it against the law to light up in workplaces and public places such as restaurants and bars, was greatly weakened in the N.C. House by Rep. Nelson Cole’s (D-Rockingham) amendment that would exempt any business that doesn’t admit those under age 18 and posts notices at the door and in ads saying that smoking is allowed. The amendment would mean bars could allow smoking since they don’t serve minors. It would also open the door to family-style restaurants’ splitting their evenings into non-smoking early hours and then switching to adult-only after a certain time, welcoming smoking and doing nothing to protect workers or non-smoking patrons from exposure.
The Cole amendment was removed in the Senate Healthcare Committee on Wednesday as was another amendment proposed that exempted certain other owner-operated businesses. However, the bill does now include an exemption for actors and performers that could lead to problems. The last-minute exemption requested by the Motion Picture Association of America was supposed to be for smoking on movie sets where smoking is called for by an actor in a production, but it has grown to include movie, TV, theatrical performances and live production sets, and could create a gaping loophole for bars.
In Minnesota, where a smoking ban included a similar exemption for theatrical productions, bar owners simply scheduled “theater nights” where employees and customers were declared “actors” and could therefore smoke inside.
“Smokefree loopholes for theatrical-film productions do more than give smoking a cultural and constitutional cover, delay debate and complicate legislation,” wrote Jono Polansky, a consultant to the University of California, San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. “They also open up avenues for mischief.”
Pam Seamans, Policy Director of the North Carolina Alliance for Health, has been reminding legislators that every employee – whether in a restaurant, bar, government building or bowling alley – has the right to a smoke-free workplace. She said testimony in the Senate Healthcare Committee showed support from the healthcare and restaurant industries as well as others. But she knows the bill will face opposition on the Senate floor. Already there is talk of the Cole amendment being reintroduced.
“What we need now is for people to call their Senators and ask them to support the strong bill that came out of the Healthcare Committee and to pass it with no weakening amendments,” Seamans said. “The committee vote was close and the floor vote is expected to be even closer.”
Take Christian Action: Supporters of the smoking ban should visit www.smokefreenc.org for a quick link to contact their Senators.