Supporters of an effort called Smoke-Free Tennessee testified before the tobacco-friendly House Agriculture Committee Tuesday to back the proposal by Gov. Phil Bredesen.
The measure would ban smoking in all enclosed public places and workplaces with two or more employees, including all restaurants and bars.
Currently, at least 18 other states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"I want to be able to drive down the highway and stop at even a truck stop and know that it's smoke-free," said Amy Kurland, whose Bluebird Cafe music venue in Nashville has been smoke-free about 15 years.
Kurland acknowledged being concerned about losing customers when she first made the decision but realized their health was more important. As a result of the change, Kurland said she actually gained patrons.
"It was one of the best business decisions I ever made," she said.
According to the National Cancer Institute, at least 38,000 nonsmokers in the United States die each year as a result of secondhand smoke. Studies show that children, the elderly and people with respiratory illnesses are especially vulnerable.
Because of such statistics and a recent Surgeon General report, the Tennessee Restaurant Association, which has been one of the most vocal opponents of banning smoking in bars and restaurants, decided this year to support a full workplace smoking ban.
"The report provided solid evidence and facts that there's no good secondhand smoke," said Ronnie Hart, the association's president. "Even the smallest level is detrimental."
The governor has said the blanket smoking ban is the logical next step after last year's ban on smoking inside state buildings, including the legislative complex.
Correction Commissioner George Little said Tuesday he supports the governor's efforts and has implemented a smoking ban in all the state's correction facilities.
"We've had our bumps in the road," Little said. "But the inmates on the whole seem to have adapted pretty well."
Bredesen said smoking in Tennessee adds up to $2 billion in annual health care costs, including more than $600 million for Tenn- Care, the state's expanded state-federal Medicare program that provides health coverage to about 1.2 million mostly low-income pregnant women, children and disabled people.
His bill would prohibit smoking within 25 feet of entrances and windows of places that are required to be smoke-free. Smoking in a nonsmoking area would be punishable by a fine of up to $50.
A person who controls a place designated as nonsmoking under the law and who doesn't comply could be fined up to $100 on the first violation, $200 for a second violation within one year of the first, and up to $500 for each additional violation within one year. Eventually the business could face suspension or revocation of its licenses.
Exceptions include private residences, except when used as a child- or adult-care center; up to 20 percent of the rooms in a hotel or motel; private or semiprivate rooms in nursing homes and long-term care facilities; and private clubs with no employees except when open to the public and outdoor areas of places of employment.
Opponents of indoor smoking bans have argued that it should be up to business owners to decide their own smoking policy.
For instance, as an alternative to Bredesen's plan, another bill being proposed would allow local authorities to enact their own ordinances concerning workplace smoking.
When asked if he thought the governor's bill might be weakened in the House Agriculture Committee, Chairman Stratton Bone said he didn't know "if there will be major changes." "I've said all along I feel we'll get some legislation out of here," said the Lebanon Democrat. "Just how far that goes, I don't know." No vote was taken Tuesday on the governor's bill or any other smoking legislation. And Bone said he's uncertain when that will happen because he wants to make sure both supporters and opponents have a chance to discuss the issues. "We'll go as long as we have to to get the crop harvested," he said. Dr. Wendy Long, TennCare's chief medical officer, urged lawmakers to keep the governor's legislation intact. "Smoking is harmful," she said. "As legislators, you have an opportunity to protect the lives of thousands of Tennesseans."