By Chris Fitzsimon
The fierce behind-the-scenes battle continues over legislation to protect people from deadly second-hand smoke at workplaces, restaurants and bars. Despite his best efforts, House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman has been unable to convince a majority of House members to support his comprehensive plan to protect the public health.
The opposition has coalesced around a soundbite in this case masquerading as a philosophy, that somehow protecting workers on their jobs is an infringement of private-property rights. Holliman points out that he owns a small business that complies with all sorts of government regulations, including fire safety inspections every year.
The regulations are designed to protect the health and safety of workers, just like Holliman’s ban on smoking in the workplace. No one is arguing that businesses should be able to refuse the fire inspections and let people who object find other jobs, but that’s what the smoking ban opponents are saying.
Holliman had planned to unveil a compromise version of his bill in a House committee Thursday morning, but it was rescheduled for next week because of a conflict with a news conference held by the House leadership about the high school dropout rate.
The latest version of Holliman’s proposal would ban smoking at all restaurants and most bars that serve food, exempting only establishments that function almost entirely as bars and only admit customers above age 21. The bill would not affect smoking at workplaces, but would overturn the 1993 law that prohibits local governments from passing their own anti-smoking regulations.
It is not clear if the new bill will garner 61 votes in the House but it does address the objections raised by the property-rights crowd by not including workplaces. Those could still be required to become smoke free by local governments.
In the midst of all the vote counting, a new group opposing the bill was created, the North Carolina Hospitality Choice Coalition, which sounds more like a hotel marketing company than an organization trying to make sure that some workers have to inhale second-hand smoke while doing their jobs.
And in case you think this is a group of property-rights advocates organized around some philosophical doctrine, the Triangle Business Journal reports that the news release announcing the group came from the head of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, which is based in Minnesota. Nice of these particular Minnesotans to weigh in on North CarolinaÃ•s workplace safety laws.
The association’s website says it is a “professional trade association that is committed to fighting for tobacco stores and protecting the right to sell and purchase tobacco products.”
That’s odd, considering that Holliman’s bill has nothing at all to do with regulating the sale or purchase of cigarettes. And the association doesn’t seem that interested in private-property rights either.
It all leads to the inescapable conclusion that even if some legislators are sincere in their concern about a possible weakening of private-property rights, that is not what this debate is really about. It is simply the tobacco industry trying to protect its profits by fighting any effort to keep people from using its deadly product.
Smoking bans not only protect workers and the public from second-hand smoke, they also make it more likely that people will stop smoking because it is more inconvenient. And people choosing to stop smoking is something the industry simply can’t stand for.
ThatÃ•s why they form misleadingly named coalitions, bring in folks from Minnesota and hide behind property-rights groups. They need people to keep increasing their risk of lung cancer and heart disease and strokes. That’s where their money comes from.
Smoking can kill you. No one disputes that. No exposure to second-hand smoke is safe.
President George W. Bush’s surgeon general said that and no one disputes that either.
One of the functions that people expect state government to perform is to protect their health and safety. Holliman’s original bill would do that and his compromise would do some of it and rely on local government to do the rest. It is really that simple. Let’s get on with it.
Chris Fitzsimon is the director of N.C. Policy Watch.