Local News

Smoking ban sparks debate about rights, health risks

Posted January 1, 2010 11:37 a.m. EST
Updated January 2, 2010 6:41 a.m. EST

— Restaurant customers and owners and health advocates debated rights and risks before North Carolina's new smoking ban took effect Saturday.

In Durham, Gary Richards enjoyed a pre-meal smoke before eating a meat-lover's pizza at Satisfaction Restaurant & Bar in Brightleaf Square, a former tobacco warehouse.

"There's smokers, and there's nonsmokers. We've gotten along in the past," Richards said. "Why can't I come in here and have my beer and a couple of slices of pizza and a cigarette?"

A diner at Sammy's Tap and Grill in Raleigh disagreed. "Personally, I like the fact that there's not going to be smoking," customer Frank Milchuck said.

At Bill's Barbecue in Wilson, another tobacco town, Daisy Turner also praised the ban. "They should have done it years ago," she said.

The owner of Sammy's and another customer there expressed their opposition to the ban in terms of rights.

"I think the individual restaurant owners ought to be able to make their own decision whether they want smoking," customer Ron Fitzgerald said.

"I believe in freedom, and I believe in choices," owner Sammy Stephens said. "So, for me, to say you can't do this, but you can do that, you know, I don't think that's the way we operate here."

The owners of Bill's Barbecue in Wilson, who support the ban, reduced their smoking section to three tables after the bill was passed eight months ago.

"We're excited about it," restaurant co-owner Tracy Ellis said. "It's more acceptance than anything. (It's gotten) a lot of positive reviews. You know, people who don't smoke, they really don't want to smell it when they eat."

Lawmakers said they were motivated to approve the bill in 2009, after years of failing to do so, primarily by the dangers of secondhand smoke to workers.

"This law doesn't tell anybody they shouldn't smoke," said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Hugh Holliman, a lung cancer survivor whose sister died of lung cancer. "It's saying nonsmokers should have the same right to breathe clean air."

Gloria Mayfield, of Maryland, expressed her agreement while eating at Bill's Barbecue during a visit with friends.

"It's going to help prevent people from getting ill," she said.

North Carolina, the country's leading tobacco producer, is the 29th state to ban smoking in restaurants and 24th for bars, according to the American Lung Association.

Other traditional tobacco-growing states have few, if any, statewide restrictions on smoking in public places and work sites. Virginia adopted a ban Dec. 1 but exempts restaurants and bars with separate ventilation systems for smoking and nonsmoking sections.

"Nationally, it's a huge step," said Thomas Carr, the lung association's national policy manager. "It just proves that if North Carolina can do it, then any state can prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants."

North Carolina exempts nonprofit private clubs, country clubs and cigar bars from the ban. To qualify, a cigar bar must satisfy a list of criteria.

Businesses violating the ban can be fined up to $200 per day, and smokers could be fined $50 if they keep smoking after being told to stop.

Enforcing the law will be driven by complaints from the public filed at local health departments, online at SmokeFree.NC.gov or from a call to 800-662-7030.

Tobacco's role in North Carolina has changed as the state has shifted from from a predominantly agricultural economy to one led by manufacturing and most recently by services and technology.

In 1978, tobacco accounted for 34 percent, or $1.1 billion, of all farm income. Thirty years later, tobacco production fell to $687 million, or 7 percent of farm income, according to federal agricultural data. The amount of tobacco grown also fell, from about 850 million pounds to 390 million pounds.

Still, about 21 percent of the state's adult population smoked in 2008, compared with 18 percent nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the debate, restaurants and bars had to be prepared Friday for the ban to begin at midnight. The owners at Hi 5 in Raleigh put out "no smoking" and took away ash trays during the day.

Adam Cobb, a manager at Hi 5, said heaters were installed outdoors on Friday for smokers.

At Players Retreat in Raleigh, owner Gus Gussler said the ashtrays will be picked up at midnight.

"We are going to smoke a cigar right before the deadline at midnight," Gussler said.

Leonard Squires said that he and other smokers who eat at Bill's Barbecue will have to adapt to the changes.

"My wife and some of her friends are not smokers, and I've learned to appreciate their perspective of it," Squires said. "Therefore, I have no problem going outside to smoke a cigarette."