Thursday, July 06, 2006

No more smoke-filled rooms?

Tobacco hasn’t been king in North Carolina for a long time, but it was still worth noting the other day when the N.C. General Assembly banned smoking in its halls – or any other government building it occupies.
Time was when a legislator voting to ban smoking or even tax tobacco was regarded as suicidal. But now tobacco has hardly any defenders left. The Senate voted 45-1 to ban smoking anywhere in the Legislative Building and the Legislative Office Building across the street, and the House concurred on a 95-14 vote.
The bill to ban smoking passed on June 30 – one day before the N.C. cigarette tax went up another nickel, to 35 cents per pack. Last fall it went from a nickel a pack to 30 cents, a tax increase that once was unthinkable in a state where tobacco farming, warehousing, auctioneering and cigarette production constituted a political powerhouse.
It wasn’t until the governorship of Bob Scott (1969-73) that the state first passed a small cigarette tax, and the notion of restricting smoking in public buildings was simply a fantasy. In the early 1990s, a state senator from High Point proposed a bill increasing the cigarette tax; the Senate killed the bill on the spot instead of at least allowing it to be assigned to a committee for its ritual gutting.
Things change. The House and Senate banned smoking on the floor of those chambers some time ago, but still permitted it in halls and elsewhere – until passing the bill last week. Other state buildings have been smoke-free for years. Gov. Jim Hunt issued an executive order prohibiting smoking in most state buildings and in the Capitol during his governorship.
That ended a long tradition of tobacco use in the historic building. Historian Raymond Beck, site manager for the N.C. Capitol Historic Site, has funny stories about tobacco customs in an earlier time when lawmakers smoked pipes and cigars, dipped snuff and chewed tobacco. “Tobacco use seemed to be almost de rigueur,” he notes.
In the days before cuspidors, the Capitol had “spit boxes” here, there and yonder – practically under each desk. These were sand-filled boxes, similar to cat litter boxes, where lawmakers could expectorate their juicy goo. There are still some spit boxes in the Capitol.
Nice shiny brass spitoons came along later, he says. There are also records of a pottery cuspidor, including one in use as late as 1893 that had a “tobacco spit glaze.” This may be more than most of us really want to know about it, but it’s a reminder that tobacco use was once a routine part of public life in North Carolina.
No more.


Anonymous said...

It's about time! I was completely shocked when I went down to the legislative library to do some reasearch in Raleigh and upon leaving saw several people smoking in the lounge area right outside the doors. Smoke + legislative library materials = bad scene. I wonder what they plan on doing about getting rid of the ashtray smell that the entire capital complex is infused with.

Anonymous said...

Now if they would just ban smoking in restaurants and other public places I would be happy.

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