Senate passes restaurant smoking ban by large margin

Backers of a ban on smoking in the state’s restaurants won a significant victory Feb. 22 when the state Senate voted 17-7 to endorse a measure establishing the ban.

The vote marked a significant reversal from last March, when the same measure failed by a single vote in the Senate.

Last March, the House of Representatives adopted a bill identical to this one before the Senate by a solid 43-vote margin. Gov. John Lynch said he would sign the new bill if it gets to him. The bill would go into effect 90 days after the governor signs it into law.

Senate opponents were determined to slow the measure’s momentum by offering eight different amendments to make the ban more restrictive, but they all failed.

They offered amendments that would ban smoking at: outdoor events where children under 18 were expected; public buildings and offices and within 50 feet of the entrance, including the State House; guest rooms, halls, ballrooms and conference rooms at motels, hotels and resorts; buildings operated by social, fraternal or religious organizations, such as the VFW; nursing homes and similar institutions; foster homes and foster group homes; resident rooms in college dorms and rooms in public housing; and outdoor events attended by 50 or more people.

“If this is about health, it should be about everybody’s health,” said Senate Republican Leader Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester. Gatsas was Senate president last year and led the effort to defeat the ban.

But Sen. David Gottesman, D-Nashua, led supporters who were concerned any changes at this juncture could jeopardize the ban. “This is a step forward and sometimes we have to take baby steps,” said Gottesman.

Sen. Jack Barnes, R-Raymond, said he agreed that second-hand smoke is unhealthy, but businesses should decide whether to ban smoking on their premises.

“It should be up to the business owners if they want to (go smoke-free) and if they’re stupid enough not to do it and people are stupid enough to go there, God bless them,” Barnes said.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said banning smoking protects restaurant and bar employees susceptible to health problems from secondhand smoke. “If I can save one person’s life, I believe I’ve done something that has made a marked impression on not only me, but the people I serve,” D’Allesandro said.

Daniel Fortin, president of the American Lung Association of New Hampshire, praised the Senate vote.

“Everyone deserves a safe work environment and once this bill becomes law, people will no longer have to choose between their health and their livelihood,” he said.

New Hampshire is the only state in New England that does not ban smoking in restaurants, according to Smoke Free USA, an anti-tobacco advocacy group.

New Hampshire already bans smoking in public buildings, offices and workplaces, except in special smoking areas as long as the smoke is segregated from non-smoking areas. Smoking also is banned in buildings owned and operated by social, fraternal and religious organizations when they are made available to the public for events such as bingo. Smoking is allowed in the buildings if it can be effectively segregated.

Smoking also is banned in schools, child care agencies during operating hours, hospitals, grocery stores, elevators, tramways, gondolas and public conveyances.

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