Senate committee approves stricter smoking ban

The state Senate Health Committee voted Wednesday for a strict smoking ban in North Carolina, eliminating plans to exempt bars and nightclubs from the restrictions.

State Sen. Bill Purcell of Scotland County, a physician and leading advocate of the ban, hopes to bring the bill for a floor vote in the Senate as soon as today.

Much of the rhetoric during the debate on the legislation echoed previous arguments. Proponents said a broad ban on smoking is necessary to protect the health of workers and the public. Opponents said individual business owners should decide whether to have smoking on their premises.

But for the first time since the legislature began debating the issue in February, a representative of a tobacco company spoke up.

The ban will hurt North Carolina workers, argued Michael Shannon, speaking on behalf of the Lorillard Tobacco Co. in Greensboro. The company has 1,800 workers there, he said, and people frequently ask him if there are openings.

North Carolina is the nation’s largest producer of flue-cured tobacco, and tobacco remains the state’s largest cash crop, he said.

“Two-thirds of all tobacco manufacturing occurs in North Carolina,” Shannon said. “We have some of the largest companies in the country, still, that relate to tobacco manufacturing right here in North Carolina.” They include tobacco seed production, farming and farm supplies, tobacco processing, manufacturing and retailing, he said.

Tobacco manufacturing is a $23.9 billion industry in the state, Shannon said.

“North Carolina has a great history, and I think tobacco has played an important role in that history,” he said. “And with the economy the way it is, it is about jobs.”

In a voice vote, the committee approved the smoking ban.

The revised bill addresses what restaurant owners describe as an inequity with a House version of the ban. That version would let smokers light up in businesses that exclude anyone under age 18. In practice, this would permit smoking in many bars but ban it in restaurants that operate bars.

Restaurant owners argued that this would put them at a competitive disadvantage against bars and nightclubs.

If the proposed ban becomes law, smoking would become illegal in most places open to the public, plus most workplaces. It would have exemptions for cigar bars and tobacco shops.

Also exempt: Actors portraying smokers on the set of a movie, television show or live stage show.

If the Senate approves the ban, the bill would return to the House for a concurrence vote. It’s not clear whether the House will concur, as the ban cleared the House only after the exemption for bars was added.

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