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US states North Carolina, Wisconsin to ban smoking

BEER and cigarettes go together like cows and hay in hard-partying Wisconsin. North Carolina is the top US tobacco-growing state.

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

Twenty-two US states and the District of Columbia have prohibited smoking in bars and restaurants since New York City passed its landmark ban in 2003. Four more states - 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 US$686 million worth of tobacco, nearly half the value of the entire US 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 US$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 US$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 US$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 US$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 US$400 million. The tax is estimated to generate more than US$113 million in the coming fiscal year that begins July 1. The governor declined to comment on the legislation.


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