One of the most important pieces of public health legislation considered by state lawmakers in a generation cleared another legislative hurdle Wednesday, as the statewide smoking ban at worksites and public places passed the Senate Health Committee without a provision added in the House that weakens it significantly.
The approval came on a close voice vote after a debate that has become familiar and frustrating. Health advocates pointed out that the science about the dangers of secondhand smoke is settled. There is no safe level of exposure. It causes 50,000 deaths every year in the United States, 1,600 in North Carolina.
Rep. Hugh Holliman, the bill's sponsor and a lung cancer survivor, told the committee that his legislation does not infringe on the rights of anyone to smoke, it simply protects the right not to smoke and to breathe air not contaminated by a known carcinogen. It doesn't seem that complicated.
But no matter how many times Holliman says that it is about protecting the public health, a coalition of conservative think tankerss and tobacco companies respond with the same two arguments, that the ban would infringe on the private property rights of business owners and would cost the state jobs by adversely affecting the tobacco industry that has been so important to the state.
Senator Eddie Goodall led the opposition Wednesday, saying the bill crossed the line of property rights and threatened the blessings of liberty guaranteed in the constitution. Seems like breathing clean air would be a blessing to count on too.
Goodall said people could choose not to eat at a restaurant that allowed smoking and choose not to work at a place that didn't ban it, though not many people have a lot of choices about where to work at the moment.
He also dismissed the point that the government already enforces health and safety regulations on private businesses, from food inspections to electrical safety codes. Goodall said that those things are not as obvious as smoking, implying that bars and restaurants ought to be able to avoid regulation by simply posting a notice that the kitchen hasn't been inspected.
Senator Bob Rucho picked things up from there, telling lawmakers that the decision ought to be left to the marketplace. That was right after he suggested that OSHA could already prohibit smoking at workplaces to protect employees. That would be the federal agency OSHA, a funny name for the marketplace.
Rucho said that the federal goverment imposed new regulations on his dentistry practice when the HIV/AIDS epidemic began and he complied to protect his workers. That doesn't seem to follow the private property rights argument.
Why should he have been forced to comply? Couldn't dental hygenists simply have found another job if Ruccho didn't want to provide gloves and other safety precautions?
The illogical opponents of the smoking ban tried unsuccessfully to weaken the bill with the same amendment that passed on the House floor that would exempt bars and restaurants that don't serve or employ minors, a huge loophole that would leave thousands of workers unprotected from secondhand smoke. Two bar owners came to urge the committee not to approve the exemption and instead provide a level playing field for every business.
A spokesman for Lorillard Tobacco Company was on hand to make the appeal for the industry,claming that the ban would threaten the 1,800 jobs at the company's Greensboro plant, and reminding lawmakers of North Carolina's great tobacco history. Holliman responded that the bill doesn't prevent anyone from smoking and wouldn't have much effect on the tobacco companies' profits.
Goodall said at one point that he looks forward to when fewer people smoke. But wouldn't that cost the state jobs too? The tobacco industry's profits depend on people exposing themselves to increased risks for lung cancer and heart disease.
Though the final vote was close, the committee ultimately chose to protect the public health and the bill now goes to the Senate floor, where its fate is less than certain. Powerful Democratic Senator David Hoyle said after the meeting that he didn't think the government should tell businesses what to do and he wondered "how far the government would go?"
Let's hope far enough to protect workers from daily exposure to a carcinogen on the job. People can smoke all they want. But that shouldn't mean the rest of us have to breathe it.