The South Carolina General Assembly has always been an arrogant lot. Before the 1960s, they did not even pretend to be democratically elected. Today they do pretend, but it's a shabby charade.
To wit: The House and Senate bills that would run roughshod over Home Rule and overturn nine local smoke-free ordinances which were passed in the last year by Greenville, Columbia, Charleston, Beaufort County, and other municipalities.
The ordinances were designed to protect workers by making workplaces smoke-free. They were spurred in part by a June 2006 U.S. Surgeon General's report that found even the most sophisticated ventilation systems cannot eliminate secondhand smoke from the air. There is no safe level of secondhand smoke, the Surgeon General said.
Municipalities may have also been motivated by a couple of recent polls. A statewide survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and released in Feb. 2006, found that 68 percent of registered voters favor smoke-free workplaces. The same poll showed that 59 percent of voters favor letting local communities decide whether to pass laws to control smoking in workplaces.
Another one, conducted by a public policy and research branch of the University of South Carolina in Dec. 2005, found that 70 percent of Charleston residents would support a city law prohibiting smoking inside all workplaces, including bars and restaurants. Additionally, 72 percent of Charleston residents favored giving local communities the option of passing their own laws to restrict smoking in public places, even if those laws may be stronger than the state law.
In passing the two bills — S.186 and H.3119 — out of committee, the General Assembly seems intent on telling the citizens of South Carolina to go to hell. They intend to overturn local smoke-free ordinances and ignore public opinion to establish a statewide "Clean Indoor Air Act."
Any business that tried to sell a product as egregiously misnamed and duplicitously advertised as the Clean Indoor Air Act would probably be subject to criminal or civil liability.
The Clean Indoor Air Act is anything but. This piece of legislation has been bought and paid for by the tobacco industry, whose lobbyists have filled the Statehouse like carpetbaggers for weeks. The push is on to get the bills out of their respective committees by the May 1 deadline so that they may be voted on by the full chambers before the end of the legislative session. Otherwise, the tobacco industry will have to wait until next year to ram this dirty law through the legislature.
"I would hope (the legislators) would be prudent and hear what the public has to say before passing this law," said Dan Carrigan, executive director of the Smoke Free Action Network, "but the tobacco industry wants their payoff now."
And what will this Clean Indoor Air Act accomplish? It will supersede local laws — such as Charleston's — that ban smoking in all places of business with one or more employees. That includes bars and restaurants.
The Clean Indoor Air Act would allow bars and restaurants to convert to smoking establishments during business hours that they choose and post those hours on the door. For this legal sleight-of-hand they would have to obtain a $100 state permit. During smoking hours, children would be prohibited from entering the restaurant.
"They would put the children out in order to protect the smokers," Carrigan said.
According to Carrigan, the tobacco industry has been working around the nation to get state legislatures to pass preemptive laws such as this one, which would take authority to regulate smoking away from local governments and put it in the legislature. The strategy makes sense for the tobacco industry, Carrigan said, because it is easier to control one state legislature than hundreds of municipalities and counties.
The tobacco industry — with the support of the S.C. Hospitality Association — is having its way with our lawmakers. Our General Assembly is about to override local laws and push through the weakest, most fraudulent "clean air" law in the nation.
In passing the bill out of committee, some senators referred to the "voluntary risk" patrons take when entering a bar or restaurant where smoking is allowed. They did not address the involuntary risk employees face every time they go to work.
The most contemptible response came from Sen. Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who said, "Nobody stops me on the streets of Charleston and says that they want home rule."
Of course, nobody stopped him on the street to say they wanted an income tax cut for millionaires or a nearly $100 million museum to house his Confederate submarine. We sure as hell got that without asking.
If this fraudulent law passes, Carrigan said he will take his battle to Columbia: "This is just the beginning."