Pa. smoking ban: Not if, but how

Posted: February 25, 2008

HARRISBURG - One is a Vietnam veteran from north-central Pennsylvania, a lifelong smoker fighting for the rights of fellow vets to light up in VFW halls.

The other is a young Philadelphia-area lawyer, who has seen close-up the health risks that can come with decades of smoking.

In a nutshell, those two stories are why there is still no state smoking ban.

The differences between the two Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Bob Belfanti of Columbia County and Rep. Mike Gerber of Montgomery County, highlight the tobacco divide that runs along generational and often geographical lines in Pennsylvania. It separates those seeking a complete ban on smoking in public places and those who would like to see exceptions for private clubs, taverns and casinos.

And now those two legislators are key members of a committee trying to forge a compromise.

Gerber, in his second term, grew up in a smoking household. Now he believes his father, a former chain smoker who has heart disease, is suffering the medical consequences. His father is back in the hospital after having survived multiple heart attacks, and his mother has breast cancer.

"A smoking ban is imperative," said Gerber, 35, who eschews cigarettes but concedes he enjoys a cigar every now and again. "It's a critically important public health issue because exposure to secondhand smoke can cause death" and an array of diseases.

His bill restricting smoking in all public places except cigar bars passed the state House last July. A far less restrictive ban, allowing exceptions for a variety of businesses including taverns, casinos and some restaurants, was approved by the Senate. Gerber and Belfanti, along with four other legislators, are part of a conference committee tasked with resolving the stalemate and drafting a compromise bill.

Belfanti, a 59-year-old former Marine who last year lit up on the House floor in defiance of a new smoking ban in the Capitol, is intent on setting aside some places as "smoker friendly."

Belfanti, who represents many elderly, retired, blue-collar workers, says he's not opposed to some type of ban, but he wants veterans organizations, members of other fraternal groups, and patrons of corner taverns - along with the tavern owners who depend on them - to have the freedom to light up in those places.

"Face it, cigarettes are part of the military," Belfanti said. "Those guys and girls who come home, maybe without an arm or a leg, want to go to the VFW and have a cigarette."

House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) said he named Belfanti and Gerber to the committee because of their strongly held views about the subject and because they represented both ends of the spectrum.

"They are paradigmatic opposites," DeWeese said. "When I think of Bob Belfanti, I think of a 19-year-old Marine on the side of a CH-46 helicopter . . . returning to Mount Carmel to enjoy a cigarette 45 years later."

DeWeese describes Gerber as a "handsome and wholesome Ivy Leaguer and football player, carrying the standard for a new generation of prudent young people who realize there are carcinogens in secondhand smoke."

With neighboring New York, New Jersey and Maryland enacting smoking bans in recent years, a Pennsylvania ban became a priority for Gov. Rendell, who included it as part of his slate of health- care-reform proposals last year.

Thousands of establishments will be affected by the ban, among them many of the 12,600 restaurants, bars and hotels with liquor licenses and a number of the 3,600 private clubs with liquor licenses.

Philadelphia enacted its own ban, but whether it would be replaced by any new state law is unknown. Among the issues not yet resolved is whether the state law will supersede local smoking bans.

Lobbying on the issue by prosmoking interests, including the tobacco industry, casinos and tavern operators, has been fierce over the last year.

Cigarette maker Philip Morris spent $275,000 seeking to influence lawmakers in 2007. The Breathe Free Coalition (American Lung Association, American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society) staked out a spot in the Capitol this year where they set up a large poster reminding passersby that six people die each day in Pennsylvania from the effects of secondhand smoke.

After days of long, hotly charged debate last summer, the separate bills passed the House and the Senate, but the two chambers were unable to resolve their differences over the scope of the exceptions. The six-member conference committee was charged with coming up with a bill that will pass both chambers.

So the conference committee will take the unusual step of holding two hearings next month before introducing legislation by April, said committee chairman Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, (R., Montgomery)

"There is a provision in the Pennsylvania constitution that says that people are entitled to clean air," said Greenleaf, a nonsmoker who launched a lonely crusade for a smoking ban 14 years ago. "You wouldn't allow people to blow asbestos in other people's faces."

Committee member Rep. Ronald Miller (R., York) thinks one answer is to require signs outside establishments that allow smoking.

"They would have to declare themselves 'adult only,' " said Miller, a nonsmoker who nevertheless believes in free choice. "Then let the free market decide if they remain a smoking establishment."

Miller says he's willing to compromise in order to get legislation to the governor's desk.

"I don't want to push what I think, but what will get a majority of votes in the House and Senate," he said.

Four of the six conferees supported exceptions in last year's bills, so the likelihood of a total ban emerging from the committee is remote.

"I'm for moderation," said Belfanti, who is trying to quit and is down to a pack-and-a-half a day from 21/2 packs a day. "I think we should give people options, but allow smokers a venue somewhere."

Majority leader DeWeese envisions legislation that would allow smoking in some fraternal clubs, small bars and areas in casinos moving through the chamber that he controls.

"This is not rocket science," DeWeese said. "We need an overall ban with a couple of exceptions."


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

|
|
|
|
|