COLUMBIA -- The South Carolina Supreme Court appeared hesitant Wednesday to uphold about a dozen smoking bans in counties and cities across the state.
The justices on Wednesday heard arguments from an attorney representing the city of Greenville, which banned indoor smoking in public places a year ago, and a lawyer for dozens of bars and restaurants that sued, claiming the ban hurts business.
Chief Justice Jean Toal took issue with the city's argument that the ban would merely be an addition to existing state law.
"Can local government go further than state law?" Toal asked. "Could Greenville city say, alcohol is bad, let's have prohibition?"
Attorney Ron McKinney said Greenville could not ban citywide alcohol consumption, because state law regulates how alcohol is consumed in South Carolina. He argued the smoking ban does not contradict existing state law.
It's up to the justices to resolve differences between two circuit judges' rulings, and their decision could affect the dozen or so smoking bans already approved in counties, cities and towns across the state.
In March, Judge John Few overturned a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars in Greenville, contradicting an earlier decision by Judge Deadra Jefferson involving a ban on Sullivans Island.
Few had based much of his decision on one sentence in a 1996 amendment to the Clean Indoor Air Act, which outlawed smoking in certain public areas, such as preschools, government buildings and arenas, except in designated areas. As the state passed that measure, legislators amended the indoor air act to say that no laws, ordinances or rules dealing with tobacco could supersede state laws or regulations.
An attorney for the Greenville businesses said the issue shouldn't even be up for debate at the county and city level.
"We had a state law that governs the legality of lighting tobacco products in public places," Randall Hiller said.
After the hearing, Hiller said some of his clients have voluntarily made their establishments smoke-free while the ban is under review.
Smoking bans around the state on hold
South Carolina cities and counties where officials have passed indoor smoking bans in the past 18 months. Some of the bans are on hold, pending the state Supreme Court's decision:
Aiken County; Beaufort County; Bluffton; Charleston; Columbia; Greenville; Hilton Head Island; Liberty; Mount Pleasant; Sullivans Island; Surfside Beach
-- Source: The South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights