RALEIGH — The state Senate voted Thursday to ban smoking in bars and restaurants in North Carolina. It set the stage for what would be a historic prohibition of a product that created thousands of jobs, built Duke and Wake Forest universities and has long been an integral part of the culture in the nation's top tobacco-producing state.
House members passed a tougher version last month, meaning that lawmakers will still have to work out a compromise, assuming the Senate passes the measure in a second vote on Monday. The bill passed Thursday by an eight-vote margin, 26-18, so that seems likely.
The state's tobacco interests conceded Thursday that change is coming.
"It's inevitable," said Tommy Bunn, president of the Raleigh-based U.S. Tobacco Cooperative, a farmer-owned grower, purchaser and manufacturer. "Historically, it's a big deal because of all the support the state has received from tobacco."
Many restaurants already prohibit smoking, but the Senate's ban would end the days of the smoke-filled bar.
A ban would be bad for business, said Kevin Smith, manager of The Graduate Food & Pub in Charlotte. "Do you know how many people smoke a cigarette when they drink a beer?"
He estimated 60 percent of his customers smoke.
Mellow Mushroom pizza owner Kent Hodges, in Raleigh, said a state-mandated ban would be a relief. He can defuse loyal but angry customers by blaming the change on the legislature.
"I don't think it'll affect business," Hodges said. "Maybe at some of the bars, but we won't even notice it."
Cigarette taxes may rise
Legislators are hammering out the smoking ban at the same time that they're writing a state budget for next year that is expected to put a higher tax on each pack of cigarettes, as much as $1 per pack if Gov. Beverly Perdue gets her way. Congress already tacked on another 62 cents per pack, one of the few politically palatable tax increases.
Tobacco's lingering roots in the state emerged in the Senate debate as critics of the ban stood up from both parties, deriding the bill as a government intrusion, questioning the science behind health claims, and waging a bit of class warfare.
"If you object to [smoking in a restaurant], don't go to that place of business," said Sen. David Weinstein, a Lumberton Democrat. "We don't need the state to get involved in every aspect of a business."
Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger of Eden said the public has "the right and ability to decide."
The ban's advocates recited health-care costs from secondhand smoke. They questioned why the state would require a restaurant to provide a safe building through fire safety equipment and safe food through health inspections but not clean air to breathe.
"Secondhand smoke is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States," said Sen. Bill Purcell, a Laurinburg Democrat and retired physician.
The measure passed earlier by the House would ban smoking in all workplaces, as well as restaurants. The Senate bill exempts private clubs, such as country clubs, which drew scorn from both sides of the aisle.
"Mr. High Flying Executive, who got bonus money out of the bailout, can go to the country club and do what he wants," said Republican Sen. David Rouzer of Johnston County.
Meanwhile, working-class bar customers will no longer be able to go there and smoke, said Sen. Doug Berger, a Democrat from Youngsville.
Smith, owner of The Graduate in Charlotte, has already thought through how he will handle the expected ban after the legislature passes it.
"I'll build a patio," he said.
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