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.

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.

For healthcare advocates, the new House rule is an important move that may soon lead to more protections for nonsmokers. Others say the House is waking up to mounting healthcare costs - and lawmakers to their responsibility as role models.

"We're talking about North Carolina, after all, which is viewed as the belly of the beast in terms of tobacco," says Stan Glantz, an anti-smoking advocate and professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. "So [the no-smoking rule] shows that the world is indeed changing on this issue."

But Rep. Alma Adams (D), who sponsored the rule change, insists that her impetus was to protect fellow lawmakers. She sits, as she points out, "only 18 inches" from Mr. Hunter's elbow on the House floor. "The whole building is always full of smoke," says Ms. Adams, who quit the habit after 30 years. "[The new rule] will enable everyone who has to work in that chamber to breathe a little easier."

But Hunter says lawmakers have an important job that doesn't always allow for smoking breaks - least of all during heated debates. It's usually during particularly tense or long-winded sessions that smoke starts rising toward the gilded dome.

The 71-43 vote to ban smoking in the chamberscame about a week after the House wrestled deep into the night over a leadership vote. In fear of missing a key vote, a number of smokers - including Hunter - lit up. "There are those times when we can't leave the floor," Hunter says.

The ban is part of the chamber's temporary rules: Opposition could still prevail when rules are finalized in the coming weeks. But after having the most lenient legislative smoking rules, North Carolina, for the time being, has the most stringent - at least of the old tobacco states.

While most northern states have special smoking rooms or prohibit the practice altogether, many Southern states simply make it illegal for the general public to smoke in the chambers. And in Mississippi, smokers can stand under air purifiers in the back of the hall.

"The nonsmokers allow [smoking in the back] as kind of a courtesy," says Mississippi House Clerk Ed Perry, who used to smoke three packs a day. "They certainly have the power to prohibit it, and they may do it one of these days - just follow North Carolina's lead and say, 'Take it outside.' "

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