The fog of smoke surrounding public health.

The fog of smoke surrounding public health.

- in Fitzsimon File

The House gave final approval Thursday afternoon to a statewide smoking ban that's significantly weaker than public health advocates say is needed to protect thousands of workers in North Carolina from the deadly affects of secondhand smoke.

The final vote wasn't that close, 72-45, and came after several hours of heated debate over two days during which lawmakers approved several amendments that weakened the proposal.

The most troubling one, introduced by Rep. Nelson Cole, exempts businesses from the ban that don't serve or employ anybody under 18, a change that would allow most bars and many restaurants to continue to allow smoking and continue to expose workers to a carcinogen.

The arguments by Cole and the amendment's other supporters were the same ones made by lawmakers opposed to very idea of the smoking ban and included faulty logic, misinformation, and distortions of the issue before them.

Not much of the debate was about the facts or public health and there's a reason for that. The science is clear about the dangers of secondhand smoke and its effects are well documented.

House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, the driving force behind the ban, reminded lawmakers that secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States and is responsible for 53,000 deaths every year, 1,600 in North Carolina.

Rep. Rick Glazier pointed out that the costs of tobacco-related illnesses in the state add up to more than $2 billion a year, including $769 million paid by the state's Medicaid program. Glazier also pointed out that no credible study shows that a smoking ban hurts businesses.

That didn't stop the proposal's opponents from citing one of course, a 2004 report about the economic effects of smoking ban in New York paid for by bar and restaurant trade groups. Not surprisingly, the study claimed all sorts of job losses and economic hardship as a result of the 2003 law.

But those findings were directly contradicted by data showing that tax receipts from bars and restaurants were up 12 percent a year after the ban went into effect and that roughly 10,000 new jobs had been created.

Most of the objections to Holliman's common sense proposal fell into three categories, claims that the bill would hurt the tobacco industry,  that the ban is an infringement on the private property rights of business owners, and that smoking shouldn't be singled out any more than obesity or eating fatty foods.

Rep. Cary Allred was especially upset, calling the ban hypocrisy and telling lawmakers they need to also ban fatty foods, fatback, and bacon.

But the bill isn't designed to punish people who smoke, it's about protecting people who don't and are put at risk by the smoke from the cigarettes of others.  Nobody else is directly affected if Allred consumes a heavy diet of fatback and bacon.

Several lawmakers tried to make the whole discussion about private property rights and individual freedom, one even quoting Patrick Henry. All that was missing was The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

We have already made the decision as a society to enforce public health and safety laws in private businesses to protect workers and the public. Restaurants are inspected, hygiene standards are enforced, and electrical systems must meet certain standards.

Just as difficult to understand were the claims that the smoking ban would devastate the tobacco industry and violate some unspoken loyalty pledge to cigarette companies. Cole said the ban would be a "kick in the teeth" to the industry.

Rep. Leo Daughtry said that tobacco built the state and was a way of life in North Carolina. Maybe, but that was before we knew that smoking kills people and that inhaling secondhand smoke does too. Should we have to pay homage to the history of the tobacco industry by sacrificing the lives of thousands of workers?

Moonshining was popular at one time too, but the state still heavily regulates alcohol and doesn't allow business owners to operate a still on their private property, whether they serve minors or not.

But regardless of the irrelevancy and inaccuracy of their arguments, the coalition of tobacco lobbyists and anti-government forces carried the day on Cole's amendment to weaken the bill, which now goes to the Senate.

Holliman is a hero for his efforts to protect the public health and that's what the bill is really about, not property rights or history or fatty foods.

It is not an inconsequential accomplishment to convince the House to pass even a weakened smoking ban.

Let's hope the Senate restores the proposal to its original form and protects all workers in North Carolina from the indisputable health hazards of secondhand smoke, not just some of them.