Smoking ban still hazy, say critics

Pa. Senate passes bill with many exemptions.

Posted: June 27, 2007

HARRISBURG - The state Senate passed a statewide smoking ban yesterday that critics argued does not go far enough in protecting public health but that supporters said was as tough as the political climate would permit.

Three hours before the bill was passed, Gov. Rendell threatened to veto it because of a provision that he said would leave as many as 105,000 children exposed to secondhand smoke in private day-care settings.

In a 33-17 vote that broke along philosophical rather than partisan lines, the Senate passed a "clean indoor air policy" that would ban smoking in most public places but carve out at least a dozen exemptions - from casinos to certain bars to nursing homes - where people could still light up.

Public health groups that had supported an earlier version of the bill pulled their backing yesterday, saying the legislation, Senate Bill 246, had become too watered down.

Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), who had championed a statewide ban for a decade, voted for the bill even though he opposed the exemptions. "Without a vote, I think the process could be stumbled, stopped - and it's important for us to continue with this process," said Greenleaf, adding that he was hoping a stronger bill would emerge from the House.

The House is expected to consider a separate ban later this week, perhaps as early as today. Its proposal has far fewer exemptions, allowing smoking in cigar bars, tobacco manufacturers and tobacco shops. Hotels and motels would be permitted to allow smoking in up to a quarter of their rooms.

And, unlike the Senate version, the legislation would not replace stricter local smoking rules, such as Philadelphia's, said Rep. Mike Gerber (D., Montgomery), who sponsored the bill. Gerber said the Senate bill has so many exemptions that "it's going to drown of its own weight. They have watered it down to the point that I don't think it's protecting public health."

Philadelphia's law, in place since January, is stricter than the Senate bill in several respects. The Senate bill would allow smoking in designated areas of nursing homes, mental hospitals and adult care facilities, while the city bans it in all those settings.

Philadelphia's ordinance also bans smoking at gaming establishments - two slots casinos are planned for the city - but the Senate bill would allow smoking on 25 percent of a casino's floor.

Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.) said he voted against the bill because it would soften the city's smoking rules. "The children of Philadelphia . . . will have a lesser standard after we move this bill," Williams said.

But Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks), who wrote the language establishing the exemptions, said he does not believe the state ban is weaker than Philadelphia's in any substantial respect and that it was the best achievable legislation.

"If you want to take it this way, we kind of took Philly's ban and massaged it to get enough votes," McIlhinney said, pointing out that there was strong opposition from some quarters within the Senate to any kind of ban.

Lawmakers from rural areas were especially concerned, McIlhinney said, that private clubs such as fraternal lodges and veterans' halls be given blanket exemptions from the smoking ban. "In the hinterlands of the state, it is the spot to gather," he said.

In both the Senate version and the city law, bars that derive 20 percent or less of their income from food sales would be able to permit smoking.

Several senators argued yesterday from the Senate floor that the free market should dictate whether businesses should go smoke-free and that Harrisburg was trying to legislate private behavior.

Twenty-seven states have approved smoking bans, some with exemptions. Illinois is poised to become the 28th.

A statewide smoking ban is a central plank in Rendell's health-care package now before the legislature. The governor yesterday took great offense at one aspect of the Senate version in particular.

He said a provision written in Monday would allow smoking at unregulated child-care facilities that care for three or fewer children. Rendell said such language would trigger "an absolute veto."

"Any smoking in a setting where a child is, is a nonstarter," Rendell said at a midafternoon Capitol news conference.


For Pennsylvania Senate roll-call votes, go to http://go.philly.

com/pasenatevote


Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.

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