Proposed Aiken County smoking ban on hold

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September 20, 2006

People in Aiken County can continue to light up least for now.

The Aiken County Council put plans for a ban on hold because of legal issues.

A law that's been on the books for over a decade gives individual businesses the power to let people light up, and since South Carolina state law overrides county ordinance, plans to pass the ban might go up in smoke.

Letting smokers light up is currently up to individual businesses.

But the Aiken County Council's proposed ban says if people want to take a drag, they have to take it outside.

West Side Bowery owner Sam Erb says that's not a decision the government should be allowed to make.

"When it is going to stop?" he said. "Tobacco and alcohol are legal substances, and they're going to tell me I can't use one of them in my business? What's going to be next?"

When it comes to local regulation, South Carolina law sides with restaurant owners like Sam, giving private property owners the final say:

"Any laws, ordinances, or rules enacted pertaining to tobacco products may not supersede state laws or regulations..."
-SC Code 16-17-502

In the mid 90s, Tom Sponseller's organization Hospitality Association of America, along with tobacco and other interests, successfully pushed the legislature to expand the law, adding legislation to restrict local governments from passing stricter laws than the state.

Since South Carolina only prohibits smoking in limited public areas, forbidding smoking on private property goes beyond state regulations.

"We love uniformity," Sponseller says. "If something's going to happen, we want it to happen across the board, so we're not competing because of a new law or regulation."

He argues smoking bans should happen statewide or not at all. But some on the Aiken County Council disagree. They're waiting for a decision on a current lawsuit in Sullivan's Island, where a bar claims they've lost half their business because of that smoking ban.

Aiken County councilman Chuck Smith tells News 12:

"We are waiting to see the outcome. It may influence the pace at which we move forward, but I don't think it will influence our decision to move forward."

Now the question remains: between the state, the local government, and private businesses, who should have the power to put out smoke in private places?

Historically, South Carolina has ruled in favor of the current law.

The lawsuit between Sullivan's Island and Bert's Bar cites three different opinions the attorney general issued against local ordinances.

But that doesn't mean a smoking ban is out of the question. The state house of representatives was only three votes away from passing one statewide, and that's expected to come up again during next year's legislative session.