Vigilant S.C. lawmakers keep
us safe from common sense
By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
IF YOU THINK lawmakers are going to do the sensible thing and ban smoking in restaurants statewide, you must not have lived in South Carolina very long.
OK, but surely they’ll at least get out of the way of local governments and let them respond to the great majority of voters who want to dine smoke-free, and deliver waitresses, cooks and bottle-washers from having poisonous gases crammed down their lungs in their workplaces?
You think they’d at least do that much, right?
Where are you from, boy? Russia? London? New York City? I never heard such innocent foolishness. Let me lay some facts of life and slow, lingering death on you. I should start by debunking a myth or two.
First, this absolute refusal to use common sense and protect the public from a ubiquitous carcinogen is not a Southern thing. It’s a South Carolina thing.
I discovered this detective-style, which is always the best way. I went into a Longhorn Steakhouse in Savannah last month and asked for a seat in the nonsmoking section. The hostess brushed off my request with a dismissive, “There’s no smoking in Georgia, silly.” All right, she didn’t actually say “silly,” but she was probably just too busy, or trying to be nice, or something.
It seems that back in 2005, Georgia lawmakers decided that kids who get dragged to restaurants by their parents, which for kids is enough of a bummer, shouldn’t also have to die of lung disease. So the state banned smoking in public venues that serve children. (At least one joint responded by banning children, but you’ll always have a few like that.)
The proposal was introduced by a state senator who also happened to be a family physician, and he told everybody breathing smoke was bad for kids’ health. That seemed to do the trick.
That would never sway our lawmakers, who are made of sterner stuff. Secession was bad for kids’ health, too, but what was that compared to our iron determination that nobody was going to tell a South Carolina white man what he could do with his property. No sir, not ever.
FYI, you can’t smoke in restaurants in Arkansas, Florida or Kentucky, either, or in 18 other states, according to the Web site of Smoke Free USA.
Our lawmakers aren’t going to let that happen here, though — not even on the micro level. They made sure of that more than a decade ago, when Spartanburg had the temerity to ban smoking in its restaurants.
They knew they would never give in to common sense, but with the Spartanburg example out there, those other weak-kneed local governments, being so close to the people and all, would start caving left and right, giving votgers what they wanted.
So they passed a law that said henceforth cities would not be allowed to ban smoking. Stupid and evil as it may be, you’ve got to admit this move was forward-looking, given the rash of attempted bans recently.
Why don’t they want people to be allowed to ban smoking in their own communities? Is it self-interest; is it greed for the tobacco lobby’s money or anything like that? No, that’s another myth.
Rep. Ralph Davenport, R-Spartanburg, showed how selfless backers of the pre-emption were when he indicated at the time (1995) that even though his asthmatic daughter was “crippled” any time she so much as walked through smoke, he saw no reason to be “eroding the free enterprise system.”
You see, in South Carolina, smokers and business owners have rights; employees and other nonsmokers don’t. Never mind that there are a lot more employees than business owners, and three times as many nonsmokers as smokers. Think about it: If South Carolina started handing out rights to just anybody — such as duly elected local governments trying to protect the public health — there’s no telling where it would stop.
But prophetic vision isn’t quite enough if one is going to keep protecting the prerogatives of a privileged minority — and if the Legislature knows how to do anything, it knows how to do that. You also need eternal vigilance.
A couple of weeks back, a really wild and crazy thing happened — wild and crazy by Palmetto State standards, I mean. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, an idealist who, despite his youth, has been around enough to know the futility of such gestures, nevertheless proposed to revoke pre-emption. He proposed, as an amendment to a bill banning smoking on school grounds, the following:
Notwithstanding any other provision of state law, a county or municipality may enact ordinances prohibiting or restricting smoking in businesses or establishments open to the general public.
It didn’t ban smoking, or tell anybody to ban smoking. It merely got state government out of the way so that Greenville, Columbia, Sullivan’s Island and all those other communities could do what they have been trying so hard to do in response to demand from their citizens.
The wild and crazy thing was that the amendment actually passed. But that was a moment of weakness by the rank and file. Before final passage of the overall bill, Senate leaders — and we call them that without a shred of irony, because the rest of the state follows where they lead — let it be known that the overall bill would be doomed if the amendment stayed. So it went away.
What do you do with people like this? They not only won’t act in the public interest; they take extraordinary steps to make sure nobody else does so.
In South Carolina, what we do with them is keep electing them. But I can’t tell you why.