Conn. smoking ban upheld by SC

John O'Brien Feb. 6, 2007, 5:57pm

HARTFORD, Conn. - In a 4-1 decision Monday, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state's ban on smoking in public bars.

The decision is an economic hit to bars. But it thrilled Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who was at the forefront of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in 1998.

He said it will be the last legal challenge to the ban, which began three years ago.

"This ruling is a milestone legal step - setting a powerful precedent for public health measures against secondhand smoke. The court's decision culminates a multi-year battle by my office to uphold the secondhand smoke ban in bars and restaurants," Blumenthal said.

A group of business owners filed the suit against the Public Health Commission. Two of the four plaintiffs who filed the suit in July 2004 are out of business. They argued that their equal protection rights were being violated because casinos and fraternal clubs were not forced to abide by the same guidelines.

"Passing legislation to put people out of business is ridiculous," plaintiffs' attorney Jan Trendowski said in the Hartford Courant. "It's not a smoking ban. It's a smoking relocation act. It's very sad because this legislation doesn't affect large dance clubs or white-tablecloth restaurants but the mom-and-pop places, the corner bars that are losing all of their regulars."

Justice Christine Vertefeuille wrote the opinion for the Court.

She wrote that state casinos, located on Indian territory, can claim sovereign immunity.

She also wrote that the Legislature could have concluded that private clubs would be expected to allow smoking in order to protect their financial interests -- even though the Legislature took that ability away from public bars.

Former Chief Justice William Sullivan dissented.

"I disagree... that Public Acts 2003... which amended General Statutes... to prohibit smoking in restaurants, cafes and certain other public facilities, but not in casinos and most private clubs, passes constitutional muster under the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions," he wrote.

He called the distinction made by the Legislature between public bars and casinos and private clubs arbitrary.

"If, for example, the Legislature had determined that, in order to reduce the burdens imposed by (Public Acts), cafes and restaurants located in towns whose names have an even number of letters would be exempt from the statute, surely that arbitrary classification could not be saved by the fact that it proved a legitimate public interest," Sullivan wrote.

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