Raleigh, N.C. — The General Assembly passed the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants back in 2009 and most of the action with regard to smoking restrictions seems to have passed on to local governments, some of which are pursuing further restrictions on smoking in their communities.
So a couple of recent letters talking up the ban caught @nccapitol's attention. One from the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association talked up the positive aspects of the ban for the group's members. The letter is all the more remarkable because during the 2009 smoking ban fight, the association was officially neutral to – and unofficially skeptical of – the ban.
“It has been a true step forward for our industry. There was a percentage of the dining public that wasn’t dining out because of smoke in restaurants," said Whitney Christensen, a lobbyist for the association.
The group's letter, signed in October by three officers of the association, says members have seen their business grow 25-to-30 percent in the wake of the ban.
A separate letter from the N.C. Alliance for Health in September, referenced a poll that found the ban was popular with the general public.
"In a time of intense political polarization, support for the smoke-free restaurants and bars law is something North Carolinians agree on - so let's keep our strong law as it is," the association wrote in its letter to lawmakers.
Such letters are typical of groups expecting to be fighting an issue down at the General Assembly. But the smoking law has been on the books for years and has even survived a court challenge.
Christensen and a representative of the alliance said that, in part, they're merely giving positive feedback. However, both groups acknowledge some concern about an nascent association of bar owners who have organized under the banner of the NC Bar, Pub & Tavern Association.
That group sent a letter to lawmakers in earlier in the year saying their businesses had been hurt by the ban.
"This law does not stop people from smoking. It stops smokers from going to bars. While currently, only 20% of Americans smoke, that number is much higher among the population of bar patrons. I estimate that about 75% of my regular customers smoke," wrote Don Liebes, president of the tavern group and the bar owner who brought a lawsuit to challenge the state's smoking ban.
Liebes had argued that it was unfair to exempt country clubs and fraternal organizations like the Elks Lodge from the ban but include businesses like his, which are organized as "private clubs" under the state's alcohol beverage control statutes.
"In the six months prior, our business was up 2.6%. Like a light switch was flipped, once we banned smoking completely our business immediately dropped by 28.9%. Most of that loss is liquor and beer sales from which the state has also lost excise taxes. This is not just about me or my club, there are over 1100 private clubs doing business in North Carolina today," Liebes wrote.
The group's website lists gaining an exemption for "age restricted venues" among its legislative goals. However, it's unclear what, if any, appetite there would be for passing such a loophole to the law. If the smoking bills of the past decade are any indication, it would likely be a messy and time consuming fight in a year when lawmakers are talking about moving quickly in and out of session and already have a passel of big-ticket items on their agenda.