Senate passes smoking ban

RALEIGH — North Carolina took a step closer to a ban on smoking when the state Senate voted Thursday to make it illegal to light up in restaurants and bars.

If the bill becomes law, the nation’s No. 1 tobacco producer will have a significant restriction on a product which drove its economy for generations.

This version of the ban is less strict than one passed by the state House of Representatives, which in turn was less strict than the original proposal to ban smoking in almost all workplaces and places frequented by the public.

Senators voted 26-18 for the ban.

Under the Senate’s bill, smoking would be illegal in restaurants and bars. Businesses that illegally allow smoking could be fined $200, but only on the third violation. People who smoke illegally after being told to stop could be fined $50.

There would be exemptions for cigar bars, tobacco shops and private clubs — such as country clubs and nonprofit fraternal organizations, but not bars and nightclubs which have operated as “private clubs” to comply with state alcohol sales laws.

The state House previously approved a smoking ban that was more strict than what the Senate approved.

The House would have banned smoking from almost all workplaces and public places; but there was an exemption for any place that excluded people under age 18 — for practical purposes, nightclubs and bars.

Senators argued passionately on the measure, which was put off last week to be watered down after it appeared a strict ban would fail.

“We’re taking a legal product, and we’re telling the owner of a business how to run his business,” said Democratic Sen. David Weinstein of Robeson County, a tobacco-growing region. “In a personal thing, on smoking, that’s a legal product with a warning on it; it just hits me wrong. I go to a lot of restaurants and bars that have signs on their doors, ‘No Smoking.’ That’s their choice; they made the choice to do that.

“And I go to a lot of restaurants that have smoking sections. That is their choice. If you object to that, don’t go to that place of business,” Weinstein said.

Sen. Tony Foriest, a Democrat from Graham who supports the ban, said it’s something that needs to be done.

“This is absolutely amazing to me that we’re having this kind of conversation, because to me it seems that we have an opportunity to absolutely make a difference, here in this body.”

The ban should be stronger, Foriest said. “Because tobacco has been good in the past, before we knew all of the ills of smoking, we accepted it. Now, we know better, and we’re still debating whether we want to support something that everybody agrees is not good for our health.”

The Senate is scheduled to take a final vote on the measure Monday. Then it returns to the House. If the House does not agree with the Senate’s version of the ban, legislators will meet behind closed doors to try to craft a compromise.

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