City advocates room to breathe

12/20/2008 11:28 PM

12/20/2008 11:36 PM

South Carolina's motto, Dum Spire Spero, is Latin for "While I breathe, I hope."

For too long, the mantra of many restaurant patrons in this state has been, "I hope I can breathe."

The Rock Hill City Council last week deliberated over an ordinance to prohibit smoking in most indoor public spaces, including bars and restaurants. On a night when the York County Council decided to consider a similar ban, only two Rock Hill councilmen, Kevin Sutton and Jim Reno, opposed it.

Both prefaced their remarks by saying they personally didn't smoke, nor did anyone in their immediate family. Reno added that asthma was an "issue" in his family.

Sutton, the most conservative member of council, pointed out that as a single guy who doesn't cook, he probably spends more time in restaurants than any of his colleagues.

His point? That it's his health, and if wants to risk his lungs by patronizing smoke-filled eateries, that's his decision to make.

That, in essence, describes the philosophical barrier each of the politicians was being asked to hurdle. On one side is overwhelming evidence that secondhand smoke is a major cause of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease for people who breathe those toxins. On the other is resistance to government telling what we can or cannot do.

Alan Nichols, M.D., head of the Tobacco-Free York County Coalition, laid out the health and economic issues articulately and passionately. For every argument presented against a smoking ban, Nichols had numbers to shoot it down. When the owner of a tavern bemoaned the business he would lose, Nichols cited studies from other communities where smoking had been banned in public spaces proving that sales increased after the smoke clouds had lifted.

More importantly, if evidence exists that secondhand smoke kills approximately 4,000 Americans every year and that breathing someone else's smoke is harmful at any level, why would anyone oppose a smoking ban?

Because this is South Carolina, where lawmakers refuse to require motorcyclists to wear helmets, where it took years to enact a mandatory seatbelt law and where the governor successfully vetoed a bill that would have made it illegal for 6-year-olds to operate an ATV. The notion of a greater social good taking precedence over "individual rights" doesn't set well with South Carolinians.

Nevertheless, those who champion individual rights also can be remarkably blasé about infringing on the rights of others. Councilman John Gettys dished up some delicious irony when he pointed out the inconsistency of colleagues who oppose a smoking ban but also had vigorously defended the prohibition of Sunday alcohol sales.

Why is it that in South Carolina concern for public morality may take precedence over individual rights but threats to public health may not?

Gettys was careful not to ridicule colleagues, knowing their views strike a chord with many constituents. Indeed, he went to great length to describe his own aversion to government telling people what they may or may not do.

Despite well-stated arguments on both sides, it's unlikely that many attending the Rock Hill City Council session last week were swayed by what they heard. Smoking bans are not a new topic.

The city and the county are playing catch-up to a movement that is sweeping the nation -- and beyond. When you can't light up in a Paris bistro or a pub in Dublin, you know something is -- or isn't -- in the air.

At one point during last week's discussion, someone suggested the city wait until after the state or federal government had established uniform regulations.

Had Mayor Doug Echols had his way, Rock Hill would have adopted a smoking ban months ago, but the city decided to delay action until other local bans had been tested in court. That test came this summer when the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that local governments may enforce their own smoking regulations.

Rock Hill reportedly remains the largest city in South Carolina without a smoking ban. That's about to change, and there's hope that York County will follow suit. Eventually, South Carolina lawmakers may get the message.

After all, Dum Spire Spero.

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