Columbia council must defend its smoking ban

COLUMBIA CITY Council is playing with fire by considering an unwarranted exemption in the city's workplace smoking ban.

And it's all being done to accommodate one business - a business, we might add, that willfully put itself in a position to be in possible violation of the smoking ban. The proposed change could potentially open the floodgates to others opportunists looking for a way around the restrictions. That must not be allowed to happen.

The amendment City Council is considering would exempt a cigar bar, defined as a bar that "generates 35 percent or more of its annual gross income from the sale on the premises of cigars, tobacco products and other paraphernalia." The amendment would not apply to cigarettes. Columbia's business license division would determine a cigar bar's eligibility by reviewing its financial documents.

Councilman E.W. Cromartie was right to characterize this as a "backdoor way to have smoking in bars." He also said that it "guts the whole essence of the ordinance if we allow bars to be in a position to have people smoking in them." The council must remember that many bar owners were unhappy when it approved the workplace smoking ban in 2008 that included bars and restaurants. There had been an attempt to exempt bars, but that, fortunately, failed.

If the council proceeds with this ill-advised change, it will create a problem that wouldn't have existed if the business it now seeks to appease had not changed its status. The business - The Tobacco Merchant on Bower Parkway -already was covered under an exemption for retail tobacco stores, defined as stores that sell tobacco products and other products that are "merely incidental."

The problem came when The Tobacco Merchant's owner installed a bar and began serving alcohol to his customers while they smoked cigars and pipes. It was that substantive change that raised questions with city staff, which asked the council to bring a lawsuit against the business to get it to comply with the city law. This isn't a matter of the city putting a law in place that had an unintended consequence that needs to be cleaned up. It's a matter of whether the city intends to defend its law - and local governments must understand that their laws are going to be stretched, broken and otherwise tested - or roll over and make a change that weakens its ban just to suit one business. If it does it this time, when will it stop?

Proponents argue that requiring businesses to generate 35 percent or more of their annual gross income the sale of cigars, tobacco products and related items would discourage existing bars from converting to cigar bars. That might be so. But if the council gives in, other businesses know that if they just go ahead and break the rules the city is as apt to forgive them - and even exempt them - as it is to enforce the law.

This is just the latest effort to get a local government to weaken its ban. A single business pushed for Richland County Council to allow an establishment to operate "a portion of its workplace" as a "designated smoking area." The town of Lexington has faced efforts to remove its toughest-in-the-region provision that prohibits employees from serving patrons smoking on outside decks and patios. Both of those local governments have resisted.

Columbia City Council had the wisdom to protect employees in the workplace from unnecessary exposure to dangerous second-hand smoke. It now needs the courage to defend that action.