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House speaker backs smoking ban

The Legislature is poised to ban smoking in nightclubs and taverns across the state, as key lawmakers endorse the measure on the eve of a debate scheduled for tomorrow in the House of Representatives.

The latest convert to the cause is House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, whose support was viewed as pivotal to the passage of a measure that has languished during the past decade due in large measure to the considerable muscle of the tobacco and restaurant lobby. The Senate has already demonstrated its support for a ban, having endorsed it last May as part of a budget bill.

Finneran's backing of the ban, disclosed last night by a spokesman, came on the same day that the Joint Committee on Health Care gave its approval. The office of state Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, House chairman of the health care committee, confirmed the panel's action and said the prohibition is destined for votes in the Senate and House, with the lower chamber scheduled to consider it tomorrow.

"The health care committee has done a tremendous job crafting a bill that will lead to a smoke-free environment in Massachusetts," said Finneran press secretary Charles Rasmussen. "The speaker totally supports the committee and its work and is looking for an active debate on the issue on Wednesday."

The quickening momentum emerges five months after Boston implemented a smoking prohibition and just weeks after similar bans started in Cambridge and Somerville. At last count, 94 cities and towns had moved to eliminate smoking from all workplaces, most notably bars and other nightspots.

Increasingly, legislators who once opposed a statewide ban changed course as barkeepers in their districts complained that they were forfeiting business to neighboring municipalities that still allowed a puff and a drink. In order to satisfy those constituents, lawmakers urged the creation of a level playing field.

"We're really at a point of critical mass with 94 cities and towns having done this," said Diane Pickles, executive director of Tobacco Free Massachusetts, a coalition of health organizations advocating for tobacco control policies. "From our perspective, it only makes sense to provide the same protection for all workers regardless of the industry they work in as well as the communities they live in."

The state ban is expected to largely mirror the prohibition that went into effect May 5 in Boston, with smoking allowed only in nursing homes; fraternal organizations, such as American Legion halls; and in cigar bars that can demonstrate they derive a majority of their sales from selling tobacco.

Governor Mitt Romney's office said last night that it would review the ban if passed by the Legislature, but did not commit to supporting it. Earlier in the year, a spokesman for Romney had said the governor preferred to leave such measures to cities and towns to decide.

The Senate's earlier backing of a statewide smoking prohibition came as an amendment to its version of the state budget and was eliminated during negotiations with the House. However, advocates of the ban say the language was dropped for budget reasons, and not because of Senate doubts about the ban.

If Massachusetts adopts a statewide ban, it will follow a trend that began in California and has swept to New York, Connecticut, Delaware, and hundreds of cities.

Advocates were encouraged this year as opposition from trade groups melted away; the Massachusetts Restaurant Association decided in the spring that it would give up its battle against a statewide ban. But they remained anxious about what position Finneran would take on the issue. Without the endorsement of the powerful House leader, they had acknowledged, their prospects remained dim.

Last night, the sponsor of the smoking prohibition in the House was exultant at the news that Finneran had decided to back the legislation.

"When the speaker of the House supports something, it's cause to celebrate, and I'm very excited," said State Representative Rachel Kaprielian, the Watertown Democrat who is championing the ban in the House. "It means we have a lot of people who are taking notice and who will see their way to having the same opinion."

Scott S. Greenberger and Frank Phillips of the Globe staff contributed. Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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