Health, property rights at issue with workplace smoking ban

State lawmakers, already leaning in favor of a ban on smoking in government buildings, are considering a bill to block smoking in all but a very few workplaces across North Carolina.

Debate before a House committee on Thursday pitted the dangers of secondhand smoke against the rights of private property owners to run their businesses as they see fit.

“You’d have to be under a rock not to know that smoking causes health problems,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, told the committee.

But opponents of the measure said people who don’t want to be exposed to second-hand smoke can avoid such environments and a ban isn’t necessary to protect them.

“Choice is the word. This proposal allows no choice for the property owners,” said Kathy Hartkopf of the North Carolina chapter of the grassroots group FreedomWorks.

“I’m an asthmatic, I have four kids, I’m very careful about (going to smoke-free restaurants),” she said. “However, to tell a property owner that a lawful activity in the state of North Carolina cannot be allowed on their property is very invasive.”

Supporters countered that nonsmokers who patronize restaurants and other businesses that allow smoking — even those with smoking sections and air-filtering systems — have no choice but to breathe unhealthy fumes.

The debate comes a week after the House passed a separate measure to ban smoking in all state government buildings. That bill is awaiting a hearing before a Senate committee.

Holliman’s bill would ban smoking in public places and all places of employment. It exempts private residences, retail or wholesale tobacco shops, tobacco manufacturing facilities including their offices, designated smoking rooms in hotels, private clubs, and research facilities conducting experiments on smoking.

Holliman — whose sister died of lung cancer and who has fought the disease himself — sponsored a bill two years ago that would have banned smoking in all restaurants. A watered-down version, requiring restaurants to set aside half their dining space for nonsmokers, was defeated by a four-vote margin in the full House.

The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, which opposed the 2005 measure, backs the current proposal “if it applies across the field” to all restaurants and bars, association spokesman Frank Gray told the committee.

The original version has already been modified at the group’s suggestion to remove bars from the exempted establishments. Gray said the association’s leaders may yet have reservations about the exemption for private clubs, and will let the committee know before its planned vote on the bill next week.

The changes failed to win over those who said the state simply has no right to tell restaurateurs or other business owners what to allow on their property. Michael Shannon, a spokesman for tobacco-maker Lorillard, noted that the company supported the smoking ban for state government buildings.

“As a fiduciary owner of those buildings, the state should have that right to make that choice,” he said. “That same principle says that the owner-operator of an establishment should have that right. Unfortunately, this bill does not provide that right.”

Shannon said the measure also disregards smokers. As written, the bill would prevent a business owner from providing any enclosed space — even a shed away from the main building — where employees could smoke protected from the weather, he said.

“So what is that telling our smokers in this state?” Shannon said. “Thank you for your money, thank you for your contribution, but please — don’t spend too much time out in public.”