Bill banning most indoor smoking ban surprisingly advances

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A measure to ban nearly all indoor smoking in Tennessee got a surprising boost in the Senate Tuesday, injecting new momentum into anti-tobacco efforts in the Legislature.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, is modeled on legislation passed in Georgia last year. It would ban smoking in all buildings owned or operated by the state, indoor public places and enclosed areas of employment.

Acknowledging that the companion measure was stalled in the House, Tracy had offered to park the Senate version among other bills with little chance of being voted on this year

But Sen. Jeff Miller urged his fellow members of the State and Local Government Committee to act on the bill, and it passed 5-2. Miller, a Cleveland Republican who in previous years opposed smoking bans, said states that have passed smoking bans provide a much more pleasurable restaurant experience.

"The difference won't be the number of patrons in that establishment," said Miller, who isn't seeking re-election. "The difference will be that you can breathe, and you can breathe freely."

The measure would permit smoking in bars and restaurants that limit entry to adults or in private rooms at restaurants or bars that have exhaust systems.

The bill would also make exceptions for assisted care facilities and nursing homes, smoking areas at airports, tobacco shops, designated hotel rooms and prisons.

Tracy said he's not sure his bill can pass this session but the Senate committee vote gives new hope for action in the House, which hasn't yet voted down the bill.

"It may generate a little action, we don't know," Tracy said. Opponents of the anti-smoking bills have said it is a property rights issue for restaurant and business owners.

Jeanette Schatz, executive director of the Campaign for a Healthy and Responsible Tennessee, said her group is "thrilled" by the Senate committee's vote.

"Tennesseans' demand for clean indoor air is growing every day and can no longer be ignored," Schatz said in a release.

House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, has traditionally directed tobacco-related legislation to his Agriculture Committee, where lawmakers hostile to the proposals have killed or delayed several smoking ban measures this year.

House Minority Leader Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, has questioned why the Agriculture Committee is evaluating the bills that seek to address health questions.

Tennessee remains one of the country's largest tobacco producers, but the 2004 tobacco crop of 65 million pounds was about half the output of a decade earlier.

Lower demand from cigarette companies and increased foreign competition have contributed to the decline, and many growers in Tennessee are using a federal buyout program to get out of the business.

Senate State and Local Government Chairman Steve Cohen acknowledged that the committee's vote may be little more than a symbolic move.

But the Memphis Democrat urged his committee to "take it up and make a statement.