The power of cities and towns to ban indoor, public smoking South Carolina will be called into question before the state's highest court next week, and its decision has the potential to quash smoking bans already in effect across the state.
Arguments to be heard by the state Supreme Court stem from an appeal by city of Greenville, which had a smoking ban that went into effect a year ago.
Greenville levied $50 fines against smokers who lit up in prohibited areas and $200 fines against businesses that allowed them to puff away. Dozens of bars and restaurants sued, claiming the ban would hurt business.
In March, Judge John Few ended the ban. He ruled such policies are a legislative issue and cited a 1996 state law that he said prevented local governments from creating their own rules on smoking.
Few's ruling contradicted a decision handed down several months earlier by Judge Deadra Jefferson, who allowed a ban to stay in place in Sullivan's Island. She said state law did not dissuade cities from regulating smoking.
The issue has been mired in uncertainty since then.
Rock Hill watching the case
While the Supreme Court hearing, scheduled for Wednesday, deals only with the Greenville case, experts say it has the potential to affect smoking ban decisions across the state.
That includes Rock Hill, where city leaders say they are waiting for the court to sort out legal questions before acting. If local bans are allowed to remain, Mayor Doug Echols has signaled that he would favor enacting one.
"It's a discussion we need to have," Echols said last year. "I think there are a number of health reasons that are well-substantiated as to why we should take a look. I'm very supportive of some type of smoking ban. What we need to do is have some conversation."
Echols is active with the S.C. Municipal Association, which supports smoking bans and provided legal help to Sullivan's Island to defend its ordinance.
In the meantime, many local restaurants are choosing to police themselves. A 2005 survey by the Tobacco/ Drug Free York County Coalition showed about half the restaurants in the county don't allow lighting up.
Cities vs. state
If the justices rule that state law does not allow municipalities to make their own rules about smoking, state lawmakers who go back to work in Columbia next week will have to decide whether to ban indoor smoking across South Carolina.
The effort has come up short in previous sessions, but both Hiller and Greenville City Manager Jim Bourey said they would be happy to let the Legislature decide.
"If the state passes a law, you won't see me filing any lawsuits trying to stop it," Hiller said.
State Sen. Joel Lourie, who has supported the notion of a statewide ban in the past, said Thursday that legislators will have to wait until the justices rule.
"My sense of the matter now is that we're just going to have to see what the Supreme Court does," said Lourie, D-Columbia.
South Carolina cities and counties that have passed indoor smoking bans and the dates enacted:
• Aiken County, June 2007
• Beaufort County, January 2007
• Bluffton, January 2007
• Charleston, July 2007
• Columbia, delayed pending state Supreme Court's decision
• Greenville, January 2007
• Hilton Head Island, May 2007
• Liberty, passed, but not taken effect
• Mount Pleasant, September 2007
• Sullivans Island, June 2006
• Surfside Beach, October 2007
Source: The South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights