Tuesday, March 11, 2008

HARRISBURG — In his 27 years working in Atlantic City casinos, Vinnie Rennich developed lung cancer and a passion for protecting casino workers from the dangers of second-hand smoke, which was everywhere.

His cancer now seems to be arrested, but he had to have part of one lung removed, he told a House-Senate conference committee yesterday that is working on legislation to ban smoking in most public places in Pennsylvania.

He also got fired by his casino after he filed a lawsuit last year alleging negligence toward workers and testified at the New Jersey capital of Trenton that 100 percent of a casino floor should be smoke-free.

Currently, 25 percent of a New Jersey casino floor may allow cigarette smoking, he said yesterday, but the smoke often drifts across onto the nonsmoking section, so the limit of 25 percent isn’t effective.

“Every worker,” in clubs, bars, restaurants, taverns and casinos, “has the right to be protected from second-hand smoke,” he said.

While casinos often say they will lose business if smoking is banned completely — because gamblers will find a casino in another state to gamble in — Mr. Rennich contended that smoke-free legislation “is not an economic issue. It’s a health issue.”

He testified at the first of two hearings being held this week by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, one of the six House-Senate conferees trying to write a smoke-free bill that can win approval from both the House and the Senate.

After a second hearing is held on Thursday, the committee will meet privately for two weeks and then, Mr. Greenleaf hopes, adopt its version of a smoking ban bill on March 31.

He’s hoping for approval of Senate Bill 246 by the full Senate and House by the end of April, but other legislators, looking at the complexity and controversial nature of the issue, think it will take longer.

“As scientific evidence continues to demonstrate the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, and the public grows increasingly supportive, each year we see additional cities, states and nations move to limit smoking in public places,” he said.

State Health Secretary Calvin B. Johnson said 22 states have enacted smoke-free laws, including many bordering Pennsylvania, such as New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. He said there are numerous studies linking secondhand smoke with illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.

Three major issues remain before a compromise bill can be reached, however:

• Should all public places be declared smoke-free, or should some smaller taverns, private clubs and casinos at least be allowed to have smoking sections?

• Will the Legislature allow towns and counties to enact their own tougher smoking bans, even after Senate Bill 246 becomes law, or will the state pre-empt localities from having their own bans? Currently, only the state can enact legislation, which is why Allegheny County’s ban got knocked out last year. Philadelphia is the only city by law now allowed to have its own smoking ban, and it does.

• Who will enforce the ban — counties, towns or the state? Only a few larger counties have health departments, said Lebanon County Commissioner Larry Stohler, and there will be an added cost for counties to crack down on bars that continue to allow smoking, if all smoking is banned.

If city or county health departments enforce the ban, they should be allowed to keep all the fines they impose, he argued.

If county health departments don’t enforce a ban, then some state agency, perhaps the Department of Health, should do it.

Even if a ban is enacted, it may not take effect for 180 days to give authorities time to decide who will enforce it.