Opinion

Enact smoking bans

With the recent ruling by the S.C. Supreme Court that local governments have the authority to ban smoking in public places, Rock Hill and York County should waste no time in enacting smoking bans.

The unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court clears up a legal question that has impeded local smoking bans for years. In 1996, state lawmakers inserted a provision into the Clean Indoor Air Act stating: "Any laws, ordinances, or rules enacted pertaining to tobacco products may not supersede state law or regulation."

Last year, a trial judge ruled in favor of Greenville business owners who claimed that a city smoking ban was unconstitutional because of the clause in the state law. But the Supreme Court overturned that decision Monday, saying that the state law applied only to local ordinances regulating tobacco sales to minors.

The only restriction noted by the court in last week's decision was that it is unconstitutional for local governments to "criminalize conduct" by using jail time as a penalty for violating a smoking ordinance. Local governments would be limited to assessing fines for violations.

But that essentially legitimizes smoking bans passed last year in Greenville, Columbia and Charleston. It also clears the way for Rock Hill and York County to consider similar bans.

Rock Hill officials discussed the possibility of a ban last year but opted to wait until the high court ruled. Now, it appears the city is poised to move ahead with that discussion. Mayor Doug Echols already has asked staff members to draw up a formal proposal, and he expects the City Council to begin deliberations in the near future.

While Greenville merchants led the battle against that city's ban, opposition among business owners is far from unanimous. In York County, for example, a 2005 survey indicates that at least half the restaurants in the county have chosen on their own to ban smoking.

Smoking bans have been painted by some as punitive to business. But in many cases, the bans increase business, especially for restaurants, where many patrons don't want cigarette smoke as an unwelcome side order to their meals.

But, from a legal standpoint, the main issue driving smoking bans in public places is the health concern. The consensus among health experts is that secondhand smoke poses a serious health threat even in small doses. Restaurant and bar owners who subject employees to secondhand smoke during much of the time they are on the job have to be especially concerned about the legal liability.

Ample precedent exists for smoking bans. Hundreds of cities and counties nationwide have bans of varying toughness.

It's a simple matter of government protecting the health of residents. We hope the city and county will move quickly to do just that.

IN SUMMARY

Last week's ruling by the state Supreme Court clears the way for local smoking bans.

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