Smoke-free law begins

Published 1:29 pm Saturday, January 2, 2010

If you’re the type who enjoys a cigar or cigarette after a meal at a restaurant, take it outside.

Effective at 12:01 a.m. today (Saturday, January 2), North Carolina’s historic smoke-free law goes into effect at restaurants and bars. With very few exceptions, the new law renders all restaurants and bars smoke-free indoors.

“This is a historic moment for the health of people in North Carolina,” said North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue. “This single action will save lives and improve the health of North Carolina residents, visitors and food service workers, as they will avoid many of the health problems caused by secondhand smoke.”

The new law, passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Perdue in May, includes not only restaurants and bars, but other venues that serve food and are inspected by local health departments, including many recreational facilities, convenience stores, hotel common areas, and private/for-profit clubs. Hotels and other lodging facilities may designate no more than 20 percent of their guest rooms for smoking.

Exceptions from the smoke-free law include cigar bars that meet a list of criteria and non-profit private clubs, such as patriotic clubs and some country clubs.

While local restaurant owners contacted by the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald said they will abide by the statewide ban on smoking, the new law was met with some reservation.

“The way the law is written, it affects everyone equally in the restaurant business,” said David Shields, owner of Golden Skillet and Catherine’s Restaurant, both in Ahoskie, and the Little Golden Skillet (old Little Mint) in Windsor. “I don’t believe it will prevent those who smoke from going out to eat, they just might not stay as long.”

He added, “If the whole idea (of this new law) is to stop non-smokers from breathing second-hand smoke, then I’m all for it.”

Shields said he did not have a lot of complaints from his non-smoking customers in the past in regards to allowing smoking in his restaurants.

“We’ve offered areas for smokers, but I’ve seen a decline in the number of people who choose to smoke in my restaurants,” he noted. “I do think this new law will affect our bar business at Catherine’s the most. Customers who visit the bar have more of a tendency to smoke.”

Shields said he banned smoking at the Little Golden Skillet last year.

“We heard some grumbling from our customers who smoked, but we didn’t see a big drop-off in business after we went to a non-smoking policy,” he said. “We did have one regular there, a smoker, who refused to come back if we wouldn’t allow him to smoke. It took a few months, but eventually he came back.

“That’s how I see this new law,” Shields added. “It might hurt some in the short run, but we’ll be okay in the long run. After the initial shock of not being allowed to smoke, people will adjust.”

Another Ahoskie restaurant owner, Brian Lassiter of Chubbies, said his place of business offered separate areas for smokers and non-smokers. He stressed that he had invested a lot of money in an air circulation system that prevented smoke from lingering inside his restaurant.

“This (new law) doesn’t bother me one way or the other, but I am a firm believer that this is a free country and those of age who choose to smoke should be able to do so,” Lassiter said. “It might be a free country, but that doesn’t stop the government from telling its citizens what they can and cannot do and where they can or cannot do it.”

Lassiter said he did ask the local health department if he could use a closed-in back room, complete with a separate ventilation system, for use by his customers who smoked.

“I asked, but they said nope; I can’t allow smoking in an area enclosed by four walls and a roof overhead,” he stated.

Another dilemma facing Lassiter is having his smoking customers stepping outside to light up.

“ALE (Alcohol Law Enforcement) and the local police say they do not want to see people hanging around outside during bar hours (10 p.m. – 2 a.m.)…they say that’s where trouble usually starts,” Lassiter said. “So, what do I tell my customers who smoke? They can’t smoke inside and law enforcement doesn’t want you hanging around outside. I confused on that part.”

However, Lassiter said he must abide by the letter of the law.

“As far as being smoke free in the restaurant, that’s okay with me,” he noted. “But from my customers, I’ve heard it both ways….the people who don’t smoke say they’ll be glad to come here for the nightlife and not go home and smell like a cigarette; then there are the smokers who say if you won’t let me smoke in your place, I’ll save my money and stay at home. It’s one of those deals where you can’t please everybody at one time. I think it will be okay once the newness wears off.”

Meanwhile, another veteran Hertford County restaurateur, John Taylor of John’s Seafood in Murfreesboro, welcomes the new regulations.

“It (the law) is fine with me,” he said.

Taylor said he doesn’t smoke and he’s never liked it.

“I hate to subject my workers to it and other customers,” he said.

As for making accommodations for smokers at his restaurant, Taylor said, “heck no” citing all the costs associated with the adjustments.

“They’re not going to stop coming out (because of the ban),” he said.

Prior to the new law, Taylor only allowed smoking in the bar area of his Main Street restaurant.

At least two Bertie County restaurants will be implementing the no-smoking policy for the first time. Both Carolina Country in Windsor and Ryan’s Café in Aulander have operators who smoke and who feel the policy will hinder some of their customers.

“It’s probably going to hurt us some, but it’s really hard to say for sure,” said Carolina Country’s Billy Dunlow. “I guess some non-smokers will like it better.”

Dunlow said he particularly had issue with the thought of a business owner being mandated in how to operate his own establishment.

“I think you ought to have your own privileges,” he said. “If they had mandated a non-smoking area, I could have worked that out easily with the way the restaurant is set up, but we have to do it.”

Diane Outlaw of Ryan’s Café was even more blunt.

“I don’t like it and neither do my customers,” she said. “Even so, it’s the law and we have to follow it because we can’t afford a $200 fine.”

Outlaw, who said about 50 percent of her customers smoke, said many of her clientele had made comments about the new policy.

“A lot of customers have said things about it,” she said. “Even the non-smokers said it wasn’t right to be told what we could do.”

In Northampton County, Joey Ferguson, co-owner of Claudine’s Restaurant in Rich Square, believes her business will be affected by the smoking ban. The establishment previously allowed smoking.

“Yes, I suspect it will; we have older men in the morning who like to smoke and drink and chit chat,” she said.

She added no one has actually said they would not come back to Claudine’s because of not being able to light up.

Ferguson, a smoker herself, said she will be affected by the smoke-free restaurants and bars law as she can’t smoke in her own business.

“It will affect us as well as our customers,” she said.

The Grapevine Cafe in Woodland has been preparing for the transition to a smoke-free environment.

Owner J.R. Welton said he has already placed “No Smoking” signs up on the windows and with business dropping off he doesn’t have many customers that smoke.

“I’ve got a handful of smokers, most of our customers are elderly or (families with) kids,” he said.

Welton said he typically would designate those handful of smokers to one table. He added many of those smokers have said they’ll simply step outside to light up.

Welton also mentioned some people are using E cigarettes or electronic cigarettes, which gives off an odorless, tar-free vapor and utilizes a cartridge of liquid nicotine.

The new smoke-free law requires affected businesses to post no-smoking signs, remove ashtrays, and ask smokers to step outside to smoke. Businesses that repeatedly break the law can be fined up to $200 per day. Smokers who refuse to smoke outside can be fined up to $50 by local law enforcement for defying the law.

Enforcement is complaint-driven. Local health departments will investigate businesses based on filed complaints.

There are three ways to report a possible business violation of the law: (1) call the local health department; (2) visit and complete an on-line form; or (3) call the N.C. CARE-LINE at 1-800-662-7030 (TTY 1-877-452-2514) 7 a.m. – 11 p.m., seven days a week. CARE-LINE services are available in over 150 languages. After hours, you may leave a message and your call will be returned.