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The Associated Press February 25, 2010, 9:28PM ET

Proposed smoking ban clears Kan. Legislature

Kansas moved Thursday toward banning smoking in restaurants, bars, offices and other public places after a bill imposing restrictions on lighting up cleared the state Legislature.

The House approved the bill, 68-54. It had earlier been passed in the Senate and will next go to Gov. Mark Parkinson, who has already endorsed the bill and signaled he would sign it.

Parkinson said the new restrictions which would take effect July 1, would reduce cases of smoking-related diseases, including cancer, in Kansas. Health officials estimate that 4,000 Kansans die from smoking-related disease every year, about 300 through exposure to secondhand smoke.

"People are dying. People are becoming ill," said Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican and a retired anesthesiologist. "They are asking you to help them stay well."

Critics of the bill consider its restrictions too intrusive and accused its supporters of hypocrisy. Sheila Martin, the owner of the Top Hat club in Hutchinson, noted that the state collects taxes on tobacco products and licenses businesses to sell them, while condemning them as unhealthy.

"I think the whole situation is sick and cruel -- to isolate these people and take away their freedom to assemble with their friends," she said, referring to smokers.

Twenty-four states ban smoking in restaurants and bars, according to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, and North Carolina -- the nation's biggest tobacco-producing state -- joined the list at the start of the year. The foundation says 19 of those states also ban smoking in workplaces.

Its backers said the bill would protect workers by requiring employers to provide smoke-free offices and shops. About 30 spectators in the House gallery wore black T-shirts declaring their support for the measure.

Zach Johnson, a bartender at the Hyatt Regency in Wichita, said working in a smoker-friendly environment always bothered him. His hotel's bar is now smoke-free, and he learned about a year ago that he has an allergy to tobacco smoke.

Without a statewide ban, he said, "It would limit the jobs I would be able to work."

Some opponents argued that decisions on smoking should be left to cities and counties, so that the regulations could be tailored to each community's needs. Three counties and 36 cities -- home to more than half the state's population -- have passed ordinances restricting smoking, though they vary.

Martin said small bars and taverns will be devastated. She was skeptical that the bill's exemption for private clubs, including hers, offered much protection and believed she would lose many customers.

Like other critics of the bill, she's upset that it exempts the gambling areas of four casinos authorized by a 2007 state law. The casinos would be built and managed by private developers for the Kansas Lottery, which owns the rights to the gambling and the gambling equipment.

House Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Brenda Landwehr upbraided supporters for accepting a bill that did not go far enough, noting exemptions for private clubs, designated smoking areas in nursing homes and 20 percent of the rooms in hotels and motels. Tobacco shops also would be exempt.

"It is not a comprehensive clean air act," Wichita Republican Landwehr said. "It's a farce, and I don't think that we should be a part of that."

She opposes statewide restrictions but told House members she was willing to work on an alternative proposal. Public health advocates and others were skeptical about what would emerge from such discussions.

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