Leaders approve bans on smoking

After two years of lobbying by doctors and public health advocates, Rock Hill and York County leaders voted Monday night to ban smoking in public places -- a move that would bring both in line with a growing number of South Carolina communities.

Under both smoking bans approved Monday, people who light up in public places could face fines -- up to $25 in Rock Hill, as high as $50 in the county.

Businesses that allow people to smoke in violation of the bans also could be fined in the city and county, and repeat offenders could lose their licenses.

For the smoking bans to become law, the City Council must vote to approve it one more time; the County Council must vote twice more.

The 5-to-2 vote by the City Council delivered some satisfaction to physicians, parents and a high school student who urged action to confront the dangers of secondhand smoke.

"It's a shame we can't go to restaurants we like because there's smoking there," said Madeline Fitzgerald, a student at Rock Hill High School.

Retired health teacher John Thomas asked County Council members to do what his home state of New York did -- ban smoking in the workplace, including restaurants and bars.

Thomas, who moved to Rock Hill about four years ago, said he has seen the growing pains of a smoking ban in New York, but many businesses there drew more customers after the ban passed.

"I don't like government to be intrusive," he said, "except in cases of health and safety. And obviously, this is one of those cases."

County leaders unanimously agreed on the ban, with some councilmen acknowledging they had changed their positions on the issue.

County Councilman Curwood Chappell said he initially saw the move as unnecessary government involvement. But after reading County Manager Jim Baker's report on the ban -- which included findings about secondhand smoke from the U.S. surgeon general -- he realized it was necessary.

"People won't sometimes drive on the right-hand side of the road," he said. "They won't stop for stop signs or red lights. And they won't be good to their children. And so we have to pass laws that make people kind of wake up sometimes."

Like Chappell, County Councilman Paul Lindemann said he, at first, thought the ban went against his philosophy about how government shouldn't tell people what they can't do.

But after talking to business owners in his district, which includes Fort Mill and Tega Cay, he realized some of them already had banned smoking. He said they wanted him to support the move, one no local governments have made until now.

"We've got to be the ones in this area to take a stand," he said.

Though many restaurant and bar owners have spoken out against bans in recent months, few turned out to raise protests on Monday night. The task fell to Brad Hickle, co-owner of Rock City Tavern on Celanese Road.

"You are going to affect the economies of these restaurants and their employees," said Hickle. "And you're taking away their right to make a decision."

City Councilman Kevin Sutton sided with Hickle, saying customers can choose for themselves whether to walk into places that allow smoking.

"As a single person who doesn't know how to cook, I probably eat out more than most folks," said Sutton, who enjoys many of his meals at Thursday's Too restaurant on Herlong Avenue. "I guess I'm more concerned with the precedent we set.

"Ten years from now, do we charge parents who smoke in a home with child abuse? I don't know where it goes."

Sutton found an ally in City Councilman Jim Reno, who said he favors allowing businesses to make their own rules.

The freedom of choice argument seemed ironic to City Councilman John Gettys, who referenced the fact that neither Sutton nor Reno mentioned choice when they opposed allowing residents to vote on Sunday alcohol sales two years ago.

"At what point to we begin to pay attention to medicine?" Gettys asked. "It is an intrusion, and I don't like it, but the public health aspect of it trumps all."

What's next

The City Council will take a final vote at its meeting on Jan. 12. Two more votes are required by the York County Council, which meets again on Jan. 5.