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Senator Buono: Time To Let Locals Set Smoking Bans

There’s nothing quite like the ability of a nearby smoker to spoil the taste of a dinner out at a good restaurant. Likewise, in some areas of New Jersey, there’s nothing quite like an outright ban on smoking in public places to arouse the wrath of bar patrons and restaurant owners who cater to those who love to ‘light’em up’ wherever they still can.

The truly combustible forces involved in this conflict might just be ready for a compromise to break a legislative stalemate between those who believe the right to breathe smoke-free air should be universal and those opposed to governmental restrictions on their personal behavior.

Personally, I stand with the smoke-free crowd and abhor the intrusion of damaging second-hand smoke into my lungs and into the breathing space of my loved ones. But in light of the deadlock over the Legislature’s proposed outright ban on smoking in public places (S-1926) which may or may not pass later this year. That’s why I hope my colleagues will take a good look at S-353 that Senator Shirley Turner and I have sponsored that would permit municipalities to set their own restrictions on smoking in public places like bars and restaurants.

Knowing how much New Jerseyans value home rule, the proposal would empower local businesses and concerned citizens to bring their cases for and against smoking to local governing bodies or regional health commissions which could respond to local concerns accordingly.

The legislation is a response to the State Superior Court ruling from 2000 which invalidated a Princeton borough smoking ban because it was more restrictive than the existing State law on clean-air requirements for public places. It will also ease the concerns of other muncipalities whose clean-air ordinances have prevailed simply because they haven’t been challenged in court.

Recent scientific reports about the harm of second-hand, environmental smoke and the hard work of health organizations like the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association have driven smokers into the far corners of many public places and out the front door of most work locations.

And, a bill I co-sponsored to ban smoking in college dorms was recently signed into law by Governor Codey, propelled by the acceptance of the fact by young people that breathing other people’s smoke can cause serious diseases for non-smokers.

Based on the knowledge at hand today about the negative health effects of environmental smoke, there’s really no reason not to authorize locally sanctioned expansion of the current State ban on smoking in public places to include bars, businesses with 50 or fewer employees and food marketing stores with floor space of 4,000 square feet or less.

In time, I predict there will be a cultural acceptance of a statewide ban on smoking in all public places. But in the meantime, it would be wise to authorize local and regional clean-air mandates that are stronger than what can be achieved legislatively on a statewide basis.

Over time, I have learned to appreciate the benefits of incremental change and its potential to foster greater enhancement of quality of life issues like breathing clean air. Such incremental change is far preferable to the stagnation currently hovering in the air above us.

Senator Barbara Buono, D-Metuchen, represents the 18th Legislative District in Middlesex County. She has been a leading advocate in the Legislature on health care issues especially for women and children.