Smokers, hold onto your ashtrays. Rock Hill and York County are moving closer to partnering on a joint smoking ban, one of the first of its kind in South Carolina.
The two sides will hold a public forum later this month to hear opinions from business owners, doctors and regular folks. Soon after, they're expected to vote on a proposal to outlaw lighting up in indoor public places.
Passage of the ban would culminate a debate that has stretched more than four years, picking up plenty of fans and critics along the way.
"Being as proactive as we possibly can is a good thing," said Dr. Michael Laughlin, a retired ophthalmologist in Rock Hill. "I don't want to have one of my arteries shut off because I'm exposed to secondhand smoke. It's a public health issue."
A counterargument comes from Peggy Bodner of Rock Hill: "We do not need to make it harder for small businesses to thrive," she wrote in a recent letter to The Herald. "I see enough empty businesses with boarded-up windows."
Courts: Cities are free to act
City and county leaders held off a decision until the courts resolved legal threats. A breakthrough came four months ago, when the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that local governments are free to write their own smoking rules.
Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols has championed the ban at City Hall, with backing from Dr. Alan Nichols, chairman of the Tobacco Free York County Coalition. At the county level, a majority of councilmen also have voiced support.
Bans apply to indoor, public gathering spots, meaning restaurants are by far the most common target.
"I want to take a stand on it," Councilman Curwood Chappell said this year. "If you want to kill yourself, you can. But you're not going to kill me."
The city of Columbia and Richland County collaborated on a ban that will take effect Oct. 1, but no other communities have struck joint deals, said Howard Duvall of the S.C. Municipal Association.
The ban could resemble the one in Greenville, where violators face $50 fines.
A joint policy would prevent uneven enforcement on the jagged edges of the city limits, where city and county law officers often face confusion over which side holds jurisdiction.
The forum is planned for Aug. 26 at City Hall, said County Council Chairman Buddy Motz.
Acting on their own
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 went smokefree in April.
"We have had a few people come in and get upset about it, but very minimal," said server Meghan Key. "The atmosphere is cleaner, I guess you would say."
The restaurant industry is split evenly on the issue, with many owners saying government-initiated bans prevent them from having to make a decision that's sure to anger some customers.