Raleigh, N.C. — A key Senate committee voted Tuesday to overturn outdoor smoking bans in cities, on beaches and on community college campuses.
Under Senate Bill 703, no local ordinance on outdoor smoking could be more restrictive than state law. State law places no restrictions on smoking outdoors.
Sponsor Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said blanket bans on smoking in public places around the state are making it "impossible" for adults to consume "a legal product."
He said the issue came to his attention recently when Wrightsville Beach enacted a beach smoking ban.
"If you’re on a windy beach in North Carolina, you ought to be able to consume a tobacco product," Newton said. "I find it ridiculous that we can’t be outdoors and have somewhere for people who choose to smoke to smoke."
The legislation would not even allow for the designation of smoking or non-smoking areas in public places, a fact that concerned several members of the Senate Agriculture Committee at Tuesday's meeting.
Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, said allowing smoking at public events, such as outdoor concerts, could discourage families from attending and even endanger children and people with asthma.
"We have to smell diesel exhaust, and people can move their children to another place if there’s a problem," Newton responded. "If you’re at a free public event where you’re free to move around, I just think you ought to be able to consume the tobacco product."
Rep. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, asked for any scientific evidence showing that secondhand smoke outdoors is dangerous. Committee staff said they didn't know of any such study.
Other Republicans were skeptical of the proposal, especially the section that would overturn "smoke-free campus" rules at community colleges. Thirty-three of the state's 58 community colleges have instituted campus-wide bans.
Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba, said his local community college wants to keep its smoking ban.
"Who’s complaining about the current law?" Allran asked Newton. "You’re taking away rights from the local schools and the local areas to determine their own policies."
"The smokers are unhappy about it," Newton replied.
Newton offered to work on a compromise amendment that would allow community colleges to designate an area to keep smokers away from buildings, but he said he would not consider taking them out of the bill entirely.
"What I’m really trying to address is the blanket ban," he said. "I think there ought to be a smoking area available to students. I don’t think they should have to get in their car and go for a ride between classes."
Pam Seamans with the North Carolina Alliance for Health said the bill would "move North Carolina backward in efforts to protect public health," and could also affect some hospitals' outdoor smoking bans.
Seamans said lawmakers should leave local ordinances alone.
"The current system is working well," she said. "[Lawmakers] are creating a problem where there is none."
The measure goes next to the Senate State and Local Government Committee. It could be on the Senate floor Wednesday.