Final decision on smoking ban won't come anytime soon

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Steve Huffman
It’ll likely be mid-May before the N.C. Senate considers a bill to outlaw smoking in most workplaces and restaurants.
The bill was approved last week by the state House.
While called a historic moment for a state built on tobacco, the bill doesn’t go far enough for Jim Cowan, director of Allied Health Services and Healthy Rowan! coordinator for the Rowan County Health Department.
The bill the House approved is less stringent than the original proposal, which sought a sweeping ban of nearly all public smoking. The current version would exempt most bars.
The Senate could roll back the exemption or change the bill in other ways when they address the matter. Cowan said he’d like to see the Senate make the bill more stringent.
He said the bill passed by the House bans smoking only if those under the age of 18 are allowed in a business. Cowan said most businesses don’t allow in people under 18.
“That’s a tremendous watering down of the bill,” Cowan said.
He said he planned to address members of the Rowan County Board of Health on the matter when they meet Tuesday. Board members months ago came out in support of the bill as it was originally written.
The House approved the bill 75-42. Locally, State Rep. Fred Steen voted for the bill while Rep. Lorene Coates was given an excused absence from the vote. Friends said Coates is traveling in Europe with her granddaughter, a trip the two had planned for months.
Coates had previously said she planned to vote against the bill, saying restaurant owners had the right to make their establishments nonsmoking if they so desired.
Steen said he debated long and hard before voting for the bill.
“It is my opinion that this is a health issue for the workplace that is critical to all workers in our state,” Steen wrote in an e-mail he sent the Post. “It has been well-documented that secondhand smoke is the third-leading cause of preventable deaths, resulting in 1,600 deaths in North Carolina annually.”
Steen said Senate members will likely change the bill before they approve it, meaning it will probably come again before the House.
“I am pro-life and therefore I must be pro-health,” Steen continued. “As we promote and advocate health discoveries and nutrition at the N.C. Research Campus, I cannot be hypocritical in my actions as a legislator. As a fiscal conservative, I am concerned that we pay higher taxes and insurance premiums due to smoking-related illnesses into the billions (of dollars) in North Carolina alone.”
N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Davie) said he doesn’t expect the Senate to be in any rush to consider the smoking ban.
“It’s not dead, but I think everybody’s willing to sit on it at least a week or two,” he said Thursday. “I have no idea what leadership will do with it.”
Brock said he’s a nonsmoker, but doesn’t support the bill. He said the matter comes down to a rule of supply and demand. If restaurant owners have customers asking for nonsmoking businesses, that’s what they’ll supply them, Brock said.
“Restaurant owners will ultimately determine the law of economics,” he said.
Violations of the ban could result in a $50 fine.