In a significant defeat for the tobacco industry, legislation that would prohibit smoking in public places nationwide cleared what was expected to be its most difficult congressional hurdle Thursday, passing a key House panel by a comfortable margin.
The health and environment subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose members have stalled or defeated previous tobacco-related measures, approved the bill, 14 to 11. The outcome startled both sides--especially the bill's chief sponsor, subcommittee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who moments before had privately expressed doubts that it would pass.
"This is a major shift that has taken place today," Waxman said, attributing the change to mounting public pressure and increasing recognition of the health risks associated with smoking, particularly the effects of secondhand smoke on children.
"This was a very tough place for this legislation--there have always been very difficult barriers to tobacco-related bills," Waxman said.
The legislation was substantially weakened, however, by amendments that would exempt from its provisions all restaurants, bars, prisons, tobacco stores and private clubs.
The restaurant and bar exemption was introduced by Waxman to address the concerns of several subcommittee members who otherwise would have opposed the bill.
Still, Waxman said, he intends to "revisit" the exemption later to try to include restaurants catering to families, such as fast-food chains, so children will be protected from secondhand smoke. Several such chains, including McDonald's, Taco Bell and Jack in the Box, already have voluntarily established smoke-free premises and support a ban on restaurant smoking.
Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Virginia, the subcommittee's ranking Republican and leader of its pro-tobacco forces, called the legislation "the ultimate Big Brother." The tobacco state lawmaker predicted that it would turn "law-abiding citizens into scofflaws."
Nevertheless, three Republicans who often side with Bliley voted in favor of the bill, saying that they could support it as long as it contained a restaurant exemption.
"I think people should be protected in places where they don't have a lot of choice about being: workplace, government buildings, malls, shopping centers and transportation terminals," said Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), who, along with fellow Republicans Fred Upton of Michigan and Scott L. Klug of Wisconsin, voted for the bill. "However, people can freely choose which restaurants, clubs and taverns to frequent."
The legislation, which would not preempt state laws, would ban or restrict smoking in most indoor environments used by the public, such as malls, schools and hospitals.
It would require the owners of non-residential buildings regularly entered by 10 or more persons during a week to ban smoking entirely within the buildings or restrict the activity to a separately ventilated room that would move the smoke directly outside.
The restaurant and bar exemptions would apply to establishments where the primary commercial activity is the sale of food or alcoholic beverages. The definition would mean that sporting arenas, or businesses such as bowling alleys, would not be exempt.
The Coalition on Smoking Or Health, which represents the American Lung Assn., the American Heart Assn. and the American Cancer Society, expressed its disappointment with the amendments. It said that it would seek to remove them when the bill reaches the full Energy and Health Committee.