North Carolina, Wisconsin lawmakers pass smoking bans; Mississippi boosts cigarette tax

NC, Wisconsin lawmakers pass smoking bans

RALEIGH, N.C. — Beer and cigarettes go together like cows and hay in hard-partying Wisconsin. North Carolina is the country’s top tobacco-growing state.

Yet bars and restaurants in both states are poised to go smoke-free after their state Legislatures passed bans Wednesday. Both North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle have said they support the measures.

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have prohibited smoking in bars and restaurants since New York City passed its landmark ban in 2003, and four more — Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Virginia — will do so by the end of the year. Florida, Idaho and Nevada ban smoking in restaurants, but not bars.

The North Carolina House’s 62-56 vote marked yet another step away from the legacy of tobacco in a state that is still the nation’s top producer by sales. Last year, North Carolina farmers produced $686 million worth of tobacco, nearly half the value of the entire U.S. output.

“It is definitely a historic move,” said Betsy Vetter, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association’s North Carolina chapter. “We think this will protect a large portion of the population from secondhand smoke and that’s quite an accomplishment for public health.”

Their law would allow fines of up to $50 for smokers who keep puffing after being asked by an establishment’s managers to stop, but the law can only be enforced by a local health director and not police. Hospitality owners or managers could be fined up to $200 after being warned twice to enforce the smoking rules.

In Wisconsin, lawmakers voted for a bill that marked an uneasy truce between the Wisconsin Tavern League, which has opposed past attempts at smoking regulations, and anti-smoking and health groups.

The ban, which takes effect July 2010, would apply in almost all workplaces. Smokers in violation would face fines of up to $250. Bar owners could set up outdoor smoking areas within a reasonable distance of the establishment. Owners who don’t try to stop smokers would get a warning and then face a $100 fine for subsequent violations.

Tag Grotelueschen, 41, co-owner of the Club Garibaldi bar in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, said it’s “ludicrous” to regulate consumption of a legal product, but he’s glad the ban would be statewide.

“If it were by municipality it would hurt the bars on the fringes, but if it’s statewide I don’t think it’s going to hurt us,” he said. “Customers might complain at first but I think they’ll acclimate.”

But Republican Rep. Leah Vukmir branded the ban “anti-smoking zealotry.”

“The only thing that’s compromised are individual rights and individual freedoms,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Texas, a statewide ban on smoking in public places passed a Senate committee on Monday and went to the full Senate for consideration.

In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist who long opposed raising the state’s cigarette tax, signed a bill Wednesday that raises it from 18 cents a pack to 68 cents.

Barbour signed the legislation as Mississippi struggles with an estimated revenue shortfall of $400 million. The tax is estimated to generate more than $113 million in the coming fiscal year that begins July 1. The governor declined to comment on the legislation.

Associated Press writers Todd Richmond and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee and Shelia Byrd in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.

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