A step forward for smoking legislation

It was almost a time warp the other night in the state Senate. As I listened to Sen. Bill Purcell, D-Scotland, talking about the dangers of secondhand smoke on the legislature's audio Web site, my mind wandered back to a blatant show of power 15 years ago when the tobacco industry said Jump and on the way up the legislature asked, How high?

It was 1993, and cigarette makers were tired of losing political battles in town halls and county courthouses. Local government officials, alarmed about what they were learning about the health effects of smoking, were adopting smoking ordinances making it illegal to smoke in some public buildings.

Cigarette makers were alarmed, too. They figured that fewer places to smoke would mean fewer cigarettes consumed. In Washington they were still denying any direct link between smoking and poor health, and in Raleigh they knew they could count on the legislature.

And so they ran a bill that was, I thought then, “innocuous in form, sweeping in scope and breathtaking in its arrogance ... a stunning legislative intrusion on local government's power.”

It was innocuous because its title was “Regulate Smoking in Public.” It sounded like a bill to restrict smoking, but it was not. It was a bill to stop new restrictions on smoking. It did so by tying local governments' hands. If they didn't already have a no-smoking ordinance and wanted to regulate smoking at all, they would have to set aside at least 20 percent of their space for smokers.

That meant taxpayers had to subsidize space for smokers. And it applied to the state's university system and community colleges as well: One-fifth of every building had to allow smoking. The bill's title should have been “Require Smoking in Public,” because that's at least as accurate, maybe more so.

Then a couple of years ago the U.S. surgeon general quit beating around the bush about smoking. In 2006, the Bush administration documented “beyond any doubt that secondhand smoke harms people's health,” as Surgeon General Richard Carmona put it:

“Secondhand smoke causes heart disease and lung cancer in adults and sudden death syndrome and respiratory problems in children,” he said.

“There is NO risk-free level of secondhand smoke exposure, with even brief exposure adversely affecting the cardiovascular and respiratory system.”

“Only smoke-free environments effectively protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure in indoor spaces.”

Purcell is a doctor with a lot of experience. A Davidson grad who went through medical school at Chapel Hill and served in the Army in the 1950s, he's a six-term legislator who has been interested in fixing the legislature's 1993 missteps for a while now.

Last week he got three bills through the Senate that, if the House goes along, will undo some of the damage. One bill would ban smoking in all state government buildings – and even outside within 25 feet of open windows – and give local governments the right to ban smoking in their buildings. Another would ban smoking in the state's motor vehicle fleet. Another would give community colleges the right to ban smoking.

“We've been chipping away at it a little bit,” he said Tuesday of the long campaign to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. Purcell's comment was a modest one, but anyone who has worked on anti-smoking bills in Raleigh knows it's still a hard fight even years after the scientific arguments have been settled.

The bill doesn't directly undo what the legislature did in 1993. But it does allow local governments to make a rational choice that the '93 legislature took away. It lets local governments choose whether to make public buildings smoke-free. It puts choice back where it belongs.

One day, maybe, the legislature will recognize it ought to extend smoking controls beyond government buildings. It won't happen this year, and maybe not next year or the year after, either. But I'm guessing it's coming.

And this time, the bill title “Regulate Smoking in Public” might have some real meaning.