Gov. Ruth Ann Minner signed the state's toughened Clean Indoor Air Act into law Friday morning before a supportive crowd of 150 people.
When the law takes effect Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, smoking will no longer be permitted in most public buildings, including bars, casinos, businesses and restaurants.
Surrounded by lawmakers and schoolchildren, Minner signed the bill in Wilmington's Rodney Square. She used six pens during the process, which she gave to the four legislators who sponsored the bill and two community advocates who supported its passage.
"As a government, we can never stop people from engaging in risky behavior. But we can, and in fact we should, step in when that behavior endangers the health and welfare of other people."
The crowd erupted into cheers and applause when Minner announced she was done.
"As a government, we can never stop people from engaging in risky behavior. But we can, and in fact we should, step in when that behavior endangers the health and welfare of other people," Minner said.
Supporters of the law have said it was needed to protect people from secondhand smoke, particularly employees who are exposed to it all day.
Critics said the law would restrict personal freedom and hurt businesses such as restaurants, bars and casinos that smokers might avoid. Critics have predicted that Delaware's casinos would lose millions of dollars should smokers take their business elsewhere.
Minner said the measure "most certainly will cause us to lose revenue." But she said she must balance budget and health concerns as governor, and this bill presented no contest.
"A healthy Delaware is something I'll always work for," she said.
Sen. David McBride, D-Hawks Nest, one of the bill's chief Senate sponsors, could not hide his enthusiasm during remarks before the signing.
"Is this a great day or what?" he said, calling the law the most protective in the nation and the moment historic.
"What a testament to a small state that accomplishes big things," he said.
Lawmakers thanked Minner for listing the legislation among her priorities during her state-of-the-state address in January. They also applauded constituents who called and wrote in support of the bill.
Nine students from Mount Pleasant High School attended the event with signs that said "My lungs thank you" and "Party of 700,000 for smoke-free restaurants." Delaware now has more than 783,600 residents.
"We were sitting up there like champions," said 16-year-old Alex Reid, a junior, at the conclusion of the event. Reid and her schoolmates stood behind Minner as she signed the bill.
"It was the coolest thing to watch a governor sign a bill. It was awesome," Reid said.
Other student members of the Kick Butts Generation group gave their 2002 annual "KBG" awards to McBride and Sen. Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, and Reps. Deborah Hudson, R-Fairthorne, and Robert J. Valihura Jr., R-Edenridge, after the ceremony. The lawmakers were the chief bill sponsors.
Maria Beauchamp, the youth group's chairwoman, said the awards honor people each year who demonstrate a commitment to fighting the tobacco industry.
But not everyone was enthusiastic about the bill. Along the edge of Rodney Square some smokers gathered. Wilmington resident Anthony Brown, 40, dragged on his Newport cigarette and said government should be more concerned about homelessness and idle children than secondhand smoke.
"Focus on the important things, not smoking," he said. "I don't understand this."