At last, Pennsylvania is clearing the air.

The state Senate took a historic step in the interest of public health Tuesday by approving legislation to ban smoking in restaurants and most workplaces and public areas across the state.

With the state House already on board, Gov. Rendell can take enormous pride in quickly signing the smoke-free law - a measure that he jump-started 18 months ago after it had been stalled for years.

Taking a bow with Rendell, of course, are the legislative leaders who worked months to craft an agreement on the ban - notably, Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), who first sponsored antismoking legislation 15 years ago. A fellow Montco lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Michael F. Gerber, stood his ground for tough smoke-free protections in the House, while Bucks Republican Sen. Charles T. McIlhinney Jr. brought along many lawmakers still reluctant to embrace even this ban, which has exemptions for casinos outside Philadelphia, private clubs and shots-and-beer taverns.

The smoking ban could well be "the most important public health legislation" to come out of Harrisburg in decades, noted Bill Godshall of the Pittsburgh-based SmokeFree Pennsylvania group. Despite the exemptions, the ban will protect vast numbers of hospitality-industry patrons, as well as employees who have had little choice when subjected to secondhand-smoke.

With the state more and more focused on promoting tourism, the antismoking rules will also bring Pennsylvania up to the standard expected by visitors from other smoke-free regions. In suburban Philadelphia, restaurants and nightclubs no longer will be at a competitive disadvantage with the city for patrons who have flocked to downtown nightspots due to the city's strong smoke-free ordinance.

By defeating earlier proposals to up-end the city's smoking rules, lawmakers left open the door for future proposals that should permit other communities to enact their own tougher measures.

In letting the city craft its own protections on secondhand smoke - who knows? - maybe the legislature also set a precedent for allowing the city to set rules to stem yet another critical public-health crisis - gun violence.

Without question, the approval of the smoking ban frees so-far reluctant Senate GOP leaders to focus on the House-voted plan Rendell favors to expand access to health coverage for uninsured Pennsylvanians.

For now, Pennsylvania health officials have a welcome, new challenge - to work toward a smooth launch of the statewide smoking ban in the fall.