Pa. lawmakers advance smoking ban

June 3, 2008 1:26:54 PM PDT
Legislative negotiators endorsed a compromise bill Tuesday that would greatly limit where smokers can light up in Pennsylvania, ending a protracted stalemate and guaranteeing a vote by the full Legislature on an issue that has smoldered for years. After two hours of debate, a conference committee voted 5-1 to ban cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking in most workplaces and public spaces, including restaurants, office buildings, bus and train stations, and sports arenas.

The bill, however, is riddled with exemptions, from drinking holes and portions of casino floors to private clubs, and it would bar any county or municipality from enacting its own smoking ban. Philadelphia's ban, the only active local smoking ordinance in the state, would continue to stand, effectively meaning that the two casinos licensed to be built there would be the state's only smoke-free gambling halls.

The bill still requires approval by both the House and Senate, and it cannot be amended on the floor. Votes are expected within days, and could make Pennsylvania the 34th state, including Washington, D.C., to approve some type of smoking ban, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Through a spokesman, Gov. Ed Rendell, who has pressed for a smoking ban as a way to cut health care costs, urged speedy legislative approval and said he would sign the measure. But the American Lung Association refused to endorse the bill, saying it does not protect enough people from the secondhand smoke that is linked to numerous diseases, including cancer.

For months, the six legislators on the panel battled over which establishments should be permitted to continue allowing smoking. For the past month, they wrangled over whether Philadelphia and other local governments would be allowed to have their own bans.

The bill was heavily lobbied by casinos, public health advocates and bars and taverns. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter wanted his city's ordinance to remain in effect. Catholic priests worried that a smoking ban would kill their bingo games.

Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who has introduced bills to ban smoking in every legislative session since 1993, said he did not like the exemptions, but voted for the compromise because he felt it was a step in the right direction.

"If we don't pass something now, we won't pass anything," the Montgomery County Republican said.

He predicted that the legislation, if it becomes law, will be strengthened in a couple years.

"This is not over," Greenleaf said. "These provisions that I find difficult to vote for ... won't be in the law in the future."

The only "no" vote was cast by Sen. Robert J. Mellow, D-Lackawanna, who bitterly criticized the committee for defeating his amendment, 3-3, to allow Allegheny County and Scranton to re-enact local smoking bans that were struck down by courts.

"We're ignoring the second-largest county in Pennsylvania ... and yet we're saying what a great thing this is," Mellow said.

Another committee member, Rep. Robert E. Belfanti Jr., D-Northumberland, reluctantly voted for the bill after lamenting that diners, corner pizza shops, neighborhood delis, bingo games, nightclubs and other local haunts would be hurt.

"I'm going to take a lot of hits back home in my district for voting for this," said Belfanti, who smokes.

The bill's list of exemptions is organized into a dozen categories. They include bars and taverns where food comprises 20 percent or less of total annual sales; tobacco shops and cigar bars; up to half of an individual casino floor; nursing homes and various treatment centers; private clubs run by groups such as the Elks or the Veterans of Foreign Wars; volunteer fire and rescue companies; lodging quarters in full-service truck stops; and as many as one-quarter of the rooms in hotels and other lodging establishments.

"Smoking" or "No smoking" signs would have to be posted just about everywhere, and fines up to $1,000 would be levied against repeat violators.


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