South Carolina has come a long way since 2006, when about the only places it was illegal to poison the people around you with a noxious cocktail of at least 69 carcinogens were schools, day cares and some sections of medical facilities and government buildings.
Actually, we should say that some communities have come a long way, because our state still has one of the most anemic anti-smoking laws in the nation. So anemic that when it was written, smoking opponents insisted on including a provision to make it clear that it was not illegal for medical facilities to be entirely smoke-free.
Now, as The Post and Courier’s David Slade reports, at least 65 towns, cities and counties ban smoking in restaurants, bars, most other workplaces or a combination of the three. That includes nine of the state’s 10 largest cities — North Charleston is the exception — and covers at least 41 percent of the population.
And those communities increasingly are moving beyond workplace restrictions — which are based on the idea of protecting employees on the job, much like we protect them from other dangerous chemicals — and extending their restrictions to sidewalks, parks, beaches and other outdoor spaces, in order to protect the general public from the clear and present danger of second-hand smoking.
It’s a welcome public health evolution, which helps protect children from sudden infant death syndrome, low birth weight and respiratory and ear infections and all non-smokers from lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, asthma, emphysema and impotence.
It’s also an all-too-rare example of local governments acting responsibly to protect their communities when the Legislature refuses to do so.
It’s not rare for cities and counties to act modestly, in accordance with the science and in the public interest. Rather it’s rare because the Legislature usually prohibits cities and counties from listening to their constituents rather than doing the bidding of the lobbyists who have lawmakers’ ears.
In fact, the Legislature intended to prohibit cities and counties from outlawing smoking in businesses, or even throughout their own offices. But for technical reasons that made it easier to overcome objections and push the restriction into law, it inserted the preemption language into the wrong section of state law; in 2008, the Supreme Court correctly ruled that the Legislature had preempted local bans on teen smoking (the state actually has a decent ban on this) rather than on smoking in public places.
Of course, as good as it is that many local governments protect employees from workplace poisoning and increasingly protect everyone from poison in outdoor public spaces, more than half of South Carolinians still live in communities where they have to rely on the benevolence of their employers for that protection. And all of us find ourselves in those communities at some point.
It would be nice to think that the Legislature would provide those protections to everyone in South Carolina. And it absolutely should. The science is not in doubt. And there’s simply no justification for refusing to protect employees from this workplace hazard. After all, we require employers to provide bathrooms and drinking water for their employees, and we prohibit them from locking their employees inside the building with no means of escape.
But while we wait for that, all those cities, towns and counties that haven’t provided at least workplace protections need to take advantage of their accidental ability to do so. And then those governments — as well as the ones that do provide workplace protections — should consider expanding those protections outdoors.