Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Smoking Backlash in the Ultimate Tobacco State ; North Carolina House Bans Smoking on the Floor - Part of a Broader Cultural Shift in the Tobacco Belt

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Smoking Backlash in the Ultimate Tobacco State ; North Carolina House Bans Smoking on the Floor - Part of a Broader Cultural Shift in the Tobacco Belt

Article excerpt

Howard Hunter likes to smoke. And, frankly, sometimes the North Carolina lawmaker likes to light up while he works - be it at his Ahoskie, N.C., funeral home or in the domed House chamber here in the state Capitol.

Known for his trademark cigarette and husky voice, Mr. Hunter, a Democrat, is one of dozens of legislators caught in a capital rebuke, with "No smoking" placards going up in the most populist chamber. "I guess somebody got offended," he shrugs.

Smokers say a new House rule asking legislators to keep their lighters in their pockets while they do the public's bidding corrodes a "last bastion of freedom." What's more, they say, it turns its back on the leaf that helped build the South's middle class - and permeated politics.

But others see it as a sign of deeper change here in the buckle of the Tobacco Belt. At the very least, experts agree that the move is challenging the tobacco culture at the center of its influence - a development that could lead to even stricter crackdowns on smoking in the South.

"It's a real landmark," says Charles Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture in Oxford, Miss.. "Public business in the South used to be conducted to the aroma of tobacco. It used to be political correctness in tobacco states that you don't criticize tobacco."

In a state that's still the No. 1 grower of tobacco - planting 1.6 million acres of leaf a year - there's a certain skepticism about the dangers of secondhand smoke. For lawmakers, only the gallery and chamber will be no-smoking zones: Senators can still smoke in their chambers; representatives can light up in their offices.

IN FACT, to find Rep. Mike Gorman (R) smoking, you'll have to follow the sweet pipe-smoke scent back to his office. "Common courtesy" keeps him from lighting his pipe on the floor. On the other hand, he says, the House chamber is no regular government office: Nearly five stories tall and 100 feet across, it has plenty of ventilation.

"Politeness should be enough to handle this debate without resorting to more laws," says Mr. Gorman, who is a science teacher when he's not crafting law.

Still, attitudes began changing in the Tarheel state about 10 years ago. Though the legislature has limited local governments' efforts to craft no-smoking policies, many workplaces have their own bans. The state's new ice arena is smoke-free, as are a growing number of restaurants. And the economy is weaning itself off tobacco - partly through a new round of buyouts that could pay more than $16 billion to keep tobacco farmers from planting. …

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