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Smoking in Public Places

The S.C. Supreme Court ruled Monday that local governments have the power to outlaw smoking in public places, a decision that opens the way for Rock Hill and York County leaders to ban lighting up.

Mayor Doug Echols has long voiced support for nonsmoking rules similar to those in other South Carolina cities. But he and other Rock Hill officials opted to wait until the high court ruled on whether such laws are constitutional.

"It provides us an opportunity to move forward," Echols said of the ruling. "It's an important health issue. We wouldn't allow people to be subjected to poor-quality water. Why should we allow them to be subjected to poor-quality air?"

Echols already has asked staff members to draw up a formal proposal. He expects the City Council to take it up for discussion in the near future.

York County leaders also have signaled interest in a ban. A public forum will be held first, and no decision will be made until the summer, York County Council Chairman Buddy Motz said.

'Flurry of activity'

With the ruling issued, Rock Hill physician Alan Nichols expects dozens of cities across the state to consider taking action. Nichols hopes that Rock Hill and York County will cooperate to write laws with similar wording so that enforcement can be uniform in restaurants, office buildings and other spots.

"There is going to be a flurry of activity around the state," said Nichols, chairman of the Tobacco Free York County Coalition. "Now that the impediment is removed, we're going to see progress in many areas, and hopefully, that will include Rock Hill and York County."

Opponents don't see progress. They see an infringement on their rights.

"Me as an owner, I don't see why I can't pick and choose," said Roy Russell, owner of the Varsity on Oakland Avenue, where smoking is allowed. "I don't see why I can't use or sell a legal product in my establishment. I'll have to abide by it, even though I still think it's not constitutional."

Some cities, including Columbia, had passed local bans but held off enforcing them until the high court ruled on the issue. Monday's decision came by unanimous vote, as the court upheld a prohibition levied by the city of Greenville.

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.

Self-regulation

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.

Eat Well Family Restaurant on Cherry Road is making the switch effective today.

"We just want to make it a healthier environment for everyone," manager Sheila Gupta said. "What (business) we lose in smokers, we'll gain in nonsmokers. We want to do what's best for everybody, but we can't please everybody."

The restaurant industry is split evenly on the issue, with many owners saying government-initiated bans prevent them from making a decision sure to anger some customers.

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