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Health commission may appeal overturning of smoking ban

The Princeton Regional Health Commission is considering whether to appeal a state superior court ruling that recently overturned a smoking ban that would have prohibited smoking in most indoor public spaces.

The commission's adoption of the ban in June ignited debate, prompting the National Smokers Alliance and Lahiere's, the Annex and the Ivy Inn to file a lawsuit against the smoking ordinance.

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And on Aug. 29, Judge Linda Feinberg ruled that state law already limits smoking and that municipalities can only enact laws concerning smoking when there is a fire hazard, said regional health officer Bill Hinshillwood.

"We were disappointed that the judge didn't consider some other factors that we had raised," Hinshillwood said. The health commission will meet next week to discuss whether it will continue to pursue the law, he said.

In June, New Jersey Breathes — a coalition of state groups whose mission is to reduce tobacco consumption — filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the commission.

Executive Director Larry Downs said New Jersey Breathes would be in full support of the health commission's decision. "If they want to appeal, we will be right there with them," he said.

Lahiere's owner Joe Christen said he was pleased with Feinberg's ruling. "My philosophy was I didn't think it was up to the Borough to come into my business and tell me how to run it," he said.

Tom Humber, president of the National Smokers Alliance — a nonprofit funded in part by tobacco money — said he believes restaurants should determine whether to allow smoking. "Part of this is attempting to understand the customer," he said. "Restaurant owners are in business to make a profit, to run a business. They're not going to make arbitrary decisions."

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Humber said he believes an appeal would likely fail. "This is one of the strongest judicial rulings that we've seen in a long time," he said.

Tara Fredreck, spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society, said opponents of the ban make individual rights an issue, when the more important issue is the health of nonsmokers. "It's really not about the choice of whether to smoke. It's whether your choice endangers other people's lives. That fact is indisputable," she said.

Downs said the judge ignored the dangers to both nonsmokers and smokers when she made her ruling. "You have a known human carcinogen that residents and citizens are being exposed to on a regular basis, yet local towns have their hands tied in terms of protecting people from it," he said.

Bob Corso, Managing Director for the American Lung Association of New Jersey, called the ruling "a momentary setback," adding that tobacco companies make it difficult for anti-smoking groups to fight smoking."

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Fredreck said the grounds for the ruling may be obsolete. "Obviously, the scientific data that was available about secondhand smoke was not as good," she said. "We have new information that the legislature really needs to take a look at and needs to be revisited."

She noted that her organization may push for a statewide ban on smoking or for the state legislature to give municipalities the authority to pass their own ordinances.

State senator Shirley Turner said she is drafting a bill that would provide explicit statutory authority to municipalities seeking to curb smoking. "The least the state can do is to enable those municipalities to carry out the will of their citizens. Maybe with one municipality at a time we can get to our desired end to eradicate cigarette smoking entirely," she said.

But Humber said the commission's efforts to pass the smoking ban are unwarranted. "The whole effort was unnecessary," he said, adding that the group simply sought to make an ideological point. "That point came at great cost to everyone involved."