The House Agriculture Committee, which has traditionally opposed legislation against tobacco interests, deferred action on a number of anti-smoking bills to allow testimony against them. Supporters testified before the committee last month.
The main proposal by Gov. Phil Bredesen 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.
"Adopting a smoking ban takes away a business' right of how to run his or her business," said Mike Nelson, a retail tobacco store owner who has a smoking lounge insides his Knoxville business. "They shouldn't be told what to do by state government."
Kelvin Moxley of the Tennessee Conservative Union said such legislation is unnecessary because "the marketplace already has plenty of nonsmoking venues."
"You do not need a one-size-fits-all government law to achieve this goal of having smoke-free environments," Moxley said. "It would eliminate freedom of choice."
However, 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.
Bredesen said smoking in Tennessee adds up to $2 billion in annual health care costs, including more than $600 million for TennCare, 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.
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.
"This issue was not taken lightly by our board; we want to be fair," Ronnie Hart, the association's president, told the committee on Tuesday. "We are looking at what the experts tell us, and doing this to protect our employees."
Bredesen's 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.
Other anti-smoking legislation to be heard by the committee includes a proposal from Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis, that would allow restaurants to have a designated smoking area or serve children, but not both.
Another measure sponsored by Rep. Mark Maddox, D-Dresden, would prohibit smoking on school grounds, on school buses and at school-sponsored events. However, the measure has likely failed this session because the companion bill didn't pass the Senate Education Committee. Also Tuesday, the Senate, State and Local Government Committee advanced a measure that would rescind a 1994 law that prohibits local governments from enacting smoking bans. The bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Stanley was approved by the committee after the Germantown Republican said that he sees the measure as a backup in case more comprehensive smoking ban proposals fail this year. (AP) Read the full text of HB2336, HB1395, HB2072 and SB0186 on the General Assembly's Web site at: http://www.legislature.state.tn.us