As communities across South Carolina have rushed to protect workers and patrons in restaurants and bars — in response to public demand, and a recent Surgeon General’s report — they have faced one major barrier: The Legislature doesn’t want them to do it, and passed a law several years back forbidding them to do so.
If the General Assembly as a body were not actively hostile to public health, all it would have to do to foster a new dawn is get out of the way — repeal its pre-emption of local governments.
Instead, in actions that might baffle Machiavelli, it has taken idealistic legislation that would place a statewide ban on smoking in such public accommodations, watered it down to meaninglessness, and included even more emphatic language making sure that local governments can’t go beyond the meager changes in this bill.
In the attached video, you can hear some women who have been working hard to get this far on a workplace smoking ban, only to find it blow up in their faces — in multiple ways.
For instance, the legislation now:
- Bans smoking in restaurants, but not bars.
- Allows bars to pretty much define themselves AS bars, rather than setting rations of food-to-alcohol or some such.
- Allows such establishments to buy their way out of the ban with a one-time fee. All they have to do is call themselves a bar, and ban kids for part of the day — letting the kids breathe the poisons from the upholstery during the hours that the joint goes BACK to being a "restaurant."
- Put enforcement of the provisions, such as they are, under the Department of Revenue — there is, after all, that fee to collect — rather than the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
- Leaves those workers at places that decide to call themselves "bars" completely unprotected from this workplace hazard.
- Most of all, makes sure local standards can’t be any better than the state’s.
That last part is what has public health advocates ready to kill the bill altogether — which has some of our relatively-benign-but-less-thoughtful lawmakers (and that’s a large subset of the General Assembly) — dismissing them as soreheads not willing to take "half a loaf." But it isn’t half a loaf; it’s a serious setback.
The whole country is fed up with being forced to breathe the toxins put out by an obnoxious minority in public places, and finally laws across the nation are starting to reflect that. The movement has been strong in South Carolina as well, with 11 bills moving through the Legislature that among other things raise the cigarette tax (a lamentably pitiful amount), and ban smoking on school property, in cars that have kids as passengers, and in the aforementioned public accommodations.
There were originally something like 19 bills, which testifies to the fact that this was a movement welling up from the people of South Carolina through their representatives, not a focused campaign by any interest group. "It’s not health Nazis dictating policy," said Lisa Turner of the American Heart Association.
That actually presents a tactical liability to those working in our behalf and against the skillful, deep-pockets, recently-reinforced tobacco lobby. They know that if they kill the bar-restaurant bill, the bad stuff will just be tacked onto one of the other bills they are counting on passing.
All the momentum out here in the real world is on the side of those of us who want to breathe clean air. But the local lobbyists for tobacco companies, who tend to be some of Columbia’s best — from Dwight Drake to Tony Denny — have been making highly effective use of their close relationships with key decision-makers in the State House.
They are like highly skillful generals on the losing side of a conventional war — giving ground in ways that make their opponents pay the maximum for every inch, while all the time looking for the main chance that will suddenly tip the balance back in their favor, despite all the odds.
To see how this works in microcosm, check the video, in which a lobbyist for the American Lung Association describes her shock at first, seeing House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison attend a subcommittee meeting on the restaurant bill, then seeing the members chat back-and-forth with the tobacco lobbyists across the room whenever they had a question, ignoring the experts from the state health department that were sitting there.
The women in the video went on and on about how their phones have been lighting up with folks from their national organizations wanting to know, what in the world is happening there? Georgia, after all, not only bans smoking in any place that EVER serves kids — which pretty much covers all restaurants — and has 27 local ordinances that go farther than that. All of this, remember, is in response to the public demand — to which local governments tend to be more sensitive than state lawmakers.
Since these health advocate met with the editorial board, North Carolina has voted NOT to ban smoking. So at least South Carolina isn’t totally alone in its backwardness.