Patrons of some York County clubs may soon be able to light up indoors if the county council approves a controversial plan to allow smoking in private clubs.
Council members for several months have considered easing a countywide ban on smoking in public places by lifting the restriction in private clubs. But questions have arisen over how to define a private club.
A new plan to be considered tonight defines private clubs as nonprofits that exist for purposes other than serving alcohol and turning a profit. Such clubs would be for "social, benevolent, patriotic, recreational or fraternal purposes," the ordinance states.
Qualifying establishments would be licensed by the state as private clubs that serve alcohol. They also must meet other restrictions that include not serving food, having a governing body with bylaws, requiring annual fees or dues, posting signs and ensuring employees and members acknowledge the dangers of cigarette smoke.
Previous versions of the amendment defined private clubs more broadly to include for-profits. Some council members argued the earlier definitions would create loopholes making it easy for establishments to be deemed private clubs.
While council members could delay final approval of the exemption tonight, it seems likely they will vote to approve or reject the latest definition of a private club.
If the council agrees to exempt some establishments from the countywide smoking ban, the exemption will take effect in about two months.
Councilman Paul Lindemann has led the fight for an exemption and is happy with the newest version.
"This way eliminates loopholes," he said.
But underlying the council's move toward an exemption is a still-hot debate over the smoking ban's purpose and the role government plays in people's lives.
County staff members oppose the proposed smoking ban exemption. County Manager Jim Baker said in a memo to council members that the ban would weaken the smoking ban's legal standing.
The existing smoking ban was modeled after Greenville's, which was approved by the state Supreme Court, Baker wrote.
"Changing the ordinance now may open us to challenges that the ordinance favors private clubs that have liquor licenses over those that do not."
Chairman Buddy Motz and Councilman Joe Cox still strongly oppose an exemption, even for a minority of establishments. They argue that the ban protects the public's health, especially that of employees.
"If we're protecting the employees, we need to protect the employees, and we're not doing that with the revised ordinance," said Cox.
A galvanizing issue
Betty Rankin, a retiree living in Rock Hill, is one of several opponents of amending the smoking ban.
Like other opponents, Rankin believes it's the government's responsibility to protect the health of citizens.
She fears that employees who depend on a job for a living won't speak up even if they prefer to work in a smoke-free environment.
"Could you speak freely if there was something poisonous at your job, and you run the risk of losing your job?" she said.
Jules Raxter opposes the smoking ban altogether, arguing that the amendment falls short of the real issues.
She doesn't smoke, but she believes business owners should decide whether to allow smoking, not the government.
"The next thing you know, they're going to be attacking our menus," she said.
But while the proposed exemption isn't her first choice, she supports it because the smoking ban has hurt the fundraising efforts of her organization, Extended Biker Family, which works with area nonprofit, biker-friendly private clubs to raise money for various causes.
She also works at an area restaurant and bar and says the ban has hurt business. She's not alone.
Cousy's in Catawba, the American Legion, Ponderosa and a handful of other private clubs that cater primarily to a specific clientele have complained that the smoking ban is driving their customers to other places where they can smoke indoors.
Lindemann addressed their concerns when he proposed the smoking ban change back in July.
He argues that personal choice trumps the public health issue. He said employees can choose not to work in a smoking venue.
"It would be like going to a race and working in the pits and thinking I was never going to get dirty," he said.
Rankin has a different analogy.
She says subjecting employees to secondhand smoke is like allowing someone to shoot a gun off inside a business and then asking employees to sign forms saying they don't mind.