By L.A. Williams, CAL correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH – The N.C. House passed a bill Thursday that would snuff out smoking in many public workplaces and family restaurants, but leave plenty of room to puff in bars and other establishments that don’t serve or employ those under 18.
“We are certainly pleased that House Bill 2 (Prohibit Smoking in Public and Workplaces) won approval, but we’re also sorely disappointed in the amendments that weakened it on the way out,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “We urge members of the Senate to right the wrongs and pass a bill that will truly protect North Carolinians from the secondhand smoke that kills more than four people in our state each day.”
The bill initially would have prohibited smoking in public places including restaurants and bars and in workplaces while allowing local governments freedom to pass even more stringent ordinances. It passed the House with a vote of 75 to 42 only after the adoption of Rep. Nelson Cole’s (D-Rockingham) exemption for any business that doesn’t admit people under age 18 and posts notices at the doorway and in advertising saying that smoking is allowed. Fraternal and veteran’s clubs would also not be covered by the ban. Nor would tobacco shops, cigar bars or designated hotel rooms.
“Cole’s amendment means the bill will not protect workers in offices and factories where those under 18 are typically not employed or invited in. Any business wanting to allow smoking may do so if they restrict minors and post a sign,” said the Rev. Creech. “This was certainly not the intent of the bill.”
Some speculate that the amendment will lead more smokers to adult oriented businesses like strip clubs because they already keep out minors and will be the most likely places to take advantage of the loophole to allow smoking. Another possibility is that restaurants will be smoke free up until a certain time of the evening, say 9 p.m., and then change to adult-only for the rest of the night to allow smoking – again not the intent of the bill as it would not protect waitresses, other restaurant workers or non-smoking patrons from exposure.
The Cole amendment would require the adult-only businesses that allow smoking to make sure that smoke doesn’t “migrate into an enclosed area in which smoking is prohibited” though it doesn’t specify exactly how that is to be accomplished.
Sponsored by Rep. Hugh Holliman (D-Davidson), Rep. Jennifer Weiss (D-Wake), Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) and Rep. Jeff Barnhart (R-Cabarrus) along with 26 fellow lawmakers, HB 2 led to emotional debate on the House floor as opponents claimed it would violate personal property rights and would be a slap in the face to the tobacco industry.
Proponents pointed to the fact that secondhand smoke is the nation’s third leading cause of preventable death, that statewide health costs from secondhand smoke are about $289 million a year, and that property rights are by no means absolute.
Quoting from a recent op-ed piece by the Rev. Creech, Rep. Cullie Tarleton (D-Watauga) told fellow legislators, “The right to choose and the right to private property are indeed God-given rights and constitutionally protected rights. Nevertheless society also rightly recognizes that some rights are higher than others. One person’s right to choose or right to private property should never outweigh another person’s right to life and to health.”
“We are not taking freedom away from anyone, but what we are saying is that their freedom ends when it enters somebody else’s lungs. I don’t think we can be any more fair than that,” said Rep. Barnhart, who asked House members to look even further than the science and the financial costs to consider the personal loss of people like his father-in-law, who died at 52 years of age from lung cancer after years of working in an office with heavy smokers.
“The doctors had a hard time believing us when we told them that he didn’t smoke ….” Rep. Barnhart said. “When he’d get home from work at night and he’d pull the car in, he’d change clothes before he ever went upstairs because nobody could stand the smell.”
Barnhart said he is a longtime defender of property rights and that his support for the smoking ban was a vote for personal freedom – “the personal freedom to live, the personal freedom to breathe, the personal freedom to make a living for your family without sacrificing everything else.”
Rep. Tarleton reminded lawmakers that secondhand smoke kills some 1,600 North Carolinians each year. In fact, research shows that breathing secondhand smoke for just five minutes stiffens a person’s aorta as much as smoking a cigarette. Evidence shows secondhand smoke is a direct cause of lung cancer, heart disease, bronchial infections, emphysema, sudden infant death syndrome, asthma, ear infections and more.
The bill that could help reduce these health woes in North Carolina will need shoring up in the Senate. Already a representative of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, which had remained neutral on the initial bill, has told the Associated Press the organization will oppose the amended bill because allowing smoking at bars may leave restaurants that have bar areas but also serve families at a disadvantage.
“The fight on this bill is not over and I know it is not an easy issue for lawmakers to address, especially in a state where tobacco has been such an integral part of our history” said the Rev. Creech. “But today we know that not only does tobacco injure – even kill the person who chooses it – but it kills many who choose not to use it. And those people deserve our protection.”