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Local legislators unsure how they'll vote on smoking bills

February 10th, 2007 9:06 pm by TERESA HICKS

Local legislators are unsure whether they'll back any bills to end smoking in Tennessee's restaurants this year, but there is little question about whether those bills will be up for debate.

"I expect there will be quite a bit of activity on that issue because the governor has made it a priority," said state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough.

In 2005, Gov. Phil Bredesen encouraged passage of a bill that banned smoking in all state-owned buildings, including Legislative Plaza in Nashville. On Monday, the governor proposed a cigarette tax hike during his State of the State address, encouraging lawmakers to raise the tax from 20 cents a pack to 60 cents. Many believe an anti-smoking law can't be far behind.

"I've heard lots of different legislators talking about their legislation that has to do with smoking," said state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City. "The bills haven't been filed yet, so I haven't seen them, but it seems to be one of the main focuses at this point.

"A lot of it's being filed by legislators who are health practitioners themselves, like (Sen.) Rosalind Kurita (D-Clarksville). Rosalind is very instrumental in pushing things like that. We have (Sen.) Diane Black, (R-Gallatin) who is a nurse, and Dr. (Raymond) Finney (R-Maryville) in the Senate, who is a doctor."

A smoking bill in Tennessee could take any of several forms this session. Lawmakers may consider banning smoking inside restaurants, or perhaps in all workplaces, which would include restaurants. Another option could be a bill to end pre-emption - Tennessee's law that currently prevents cities and counties from making their own laws regarding smoking in public places.

"I think they're all three going to be actively debated," said Crowe.

State Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, believes a bill "to let the counties make their own decisions" is the one most likely to come to the table this session.

One key element in the success or failure of any smoking bill will likely be which committee reviews the legislation.

Crowe said any bill aimed at the behavior of smoking would likely find its way to the committee he now chairs - the Senate's General Welfare, Health and Human Resources Committee.

He expects that bills on regulating smoking in places of business would go to the Senate Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee, chaired by Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, and bills regarding the taxation of cigarettes would go to either the Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee or the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

"But you don't always see that logical approach. It just depends on the speaker," Crowe said. "The speaker gets to choose where that goes."

Historically, bills dealing with smoking in any way have been considered by the Agriculture Committee, which according to American Cancer Society spokeswoman Shelley Courington is "where all good tobacco bills go to die."

Asked whether they would back a bill to eliminate smoking inside restaurants or other workplaces, both Crowe and Hill were reluctant to support excessive regulation in the world of private business.

"My feeling on that is those are private businesses, and if you don't want to go in there, you don't have to," Crowe said. "I think when it comes to a private business, it's kind of tough for the government to be telling businesses how to operate, especially when people have a choice. They don't have to go if they don't want to. They can choose the restaurants they want to eat in."

Regarding the safety of restaurant employees who breathe secondhand smoke at work, Crowe said that exposure is also voluntary.

"You can choose to work there or not work there," he said.

Hill believes a law eliminating smoking inside restaurants would affect the "kind of customers" who go there.

"Do we want the government dictating to private businesses what type of customers they're allowed to have? That's a question the community is going to have to answer," Hill said. "I personally tend to be of the opinion that it us up to the private business to decide what kind of customers they want to have, not the government, and not by force of the government."

Ford and Hill both said they intend to send out surveys on the matter to solicit opinions from Northeast Tennessee residents. Even without the survey, however, Ford has been hearing from his constituents.

"I have had a combination of 29 e-mails, phone calls and cards, and all of them have been against public smoking. Pro-smoking, I haven't heard from one single person yet, so right now, it's running 29 to nothing," he said.

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