RALEIGH â€” 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 nationâ€™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 Senateâ€™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 â€” such as country clubs and nonprofit fraternal organizations, but not bars and nightclubs which have operated as â€œprivate clubsâ€ 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 â€” 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.
â€œWeâ€™re taking a legal product, and weâ€™re telling the owner of a business how to run his business,â€ said Democratic Sen. David Weinstein of Robeson County, a tobacco-growing region. â€œIn a personal thing, on smoking, thatâ€™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, â€˜No Smoking.â€™ Thatâ€™s their choice; they made the choice to do that.
â€œAnd I go to a lot of restaurants that have smoking sections. That is their choice. If you object to that, donâ€™t go to that place of business,â€ Weinstein said.
Sen. Tony Foriest, a Democrat from Graham who supports the ban, said itâ€™s something that needs to be done.
â€œThis is absolutely amazing to me that weâ€™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.â€
The ban should be stronger, Foriest said. â€œBecause tobacco has been good in the past, before we knew all of the ills of smoking, we accepted it. Now, we know better, and weâ€™re still debating whether we want to support something that everybody agrees is not good for our health.â€
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 Senateâ€™s version of the ban, legislators will meet behind closed doors to try to craft a compromise.
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