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State lawmakers will again attempt a smoking ban

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In yet another sign that North Carolina is no longer the tobacco stalwart it once was, the General Assembly appears poised to again consider a smoking ban in restaurants, work sites and even bars.

State Rep. Hugh Holliman, the House majority leader from Lexington and a former smoker, planned to file the bill on Wednesday, the day the legislative session opened -- a move that will no doubt spark debate between public health advocates, tobacco companies and hospitality-industry lobbyists who want to look out for their bottom line. He last sought a ban in 2007, when his bill narrowly failed in the House of Representatives.

This time, Holliman, a lung cancer survivor who lost his sister to the disease, thinks he'll be more successful. "It's a health issue whose time has come," he said.

A decade or even a few years ago, a public smoking ban would have been unheard of in the home state of R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard, where tobacco once drove development of Winston-Salem, Durham and Duke University. But as more people grow concerned about the air they breathe, public sentiment turns against smokers, and Big Tobacco loses lobbying power while Big Pharma's seems to increase, even restaurant groups, traditionally vocal opponents of smoking bans, are accepting prohibitions -- in some form -- as inevitable, as are tobacco companies.

Will a ban pass here? Certainly sentiment favors smoke-free restaurants. An Elon University poll in 2007 found that 62 percent of people said they would support or strongly support a statewide law against smoking in public places, such as public buildings, offices, restaurants and bars. Paradoxically, 67 percent of the same people polled said business owners and not the government should make that decision -- a personal-liberty argument that has proved the most sustaining argument against a ban.

Chris Hayes, a senior legislative analyst of the conservative John W. Pope Civitas Institute, said he suspects Holliman's ban may just get the needed votes to pass if a compromise is reached. But an outright ban? Forget it. "It failed by six votes two years ago," Hayes said. "If he introduces the outright ban as stringent as it was two years ago ... I think it's going to be right on that margin again."

Holliman says he's sure changes will be made as the ban bill works its way through the House and the Senate, and indicated that he's open to compromise. "I will be real reluctant to give up on the core issues, but if there's small exceptions that can be made that would gain more support, then we'll probably do that," he said.

Michael Shannon, director of government affairs for Lorillard, said the Greensboro-based company will oppose a ban -- if it does not provide "reasonable accommodations" for establishments that would like to allow smoking. Paul Stone of the N.C. Restaurant and Hotel Lodging Association said its members, about half of whom have ABC permits, would prefer the decision be left to business owners but sees that a law is destined to pass. "We know that at some point there will be a ban, whether it's this year or five years from now," Stone said.

That said, the association will oppose the bill if bars or other businesses are excluded, creating what Stone described as an unequal playing field.

Even Hayes, whose libertarian think tank generally opposes government regulation, said he would support a ban, with certain caveats. "My belief is that smoking is a legal activity and private citizens have a right to engage in that legal activity," he said. "My solution would be a ban, but with an opt-in clause where a bar, a restaurant, can post on the front door that smoking is allows here, so that a consumer is informed."

Though North Carolina has traditionally been friendly to tobacco, it does ban smoking in all state government buildings, including college classrooms and dorms. Unlike South Carolina, where Rock Hill earlier this month became the first Charlotte-area city to pass a smoking ban, North Carolina doesn't allows local governments to set their own prohibitions -- a limitation that Holliman's bill would rescind.

Still, that friendliness has been waning as the economy has diversified. Pharmaceutical companies and health insurers are donating to state campaigns, too. In 2007, when the final vote in the House of Representatives was split 55-61, campaign donations from pharmaceutical company Pfizer, for instance, went almost exclusively to House members who supported the ban. That year, Pfizer (maker of smoking-cession aids Nicotrol and Chantix) donated $15,000 to state legislators. GlaxoSmithKline (maker of Nicorette and NicoDerm) gave $7,000. Pfizer gave $2,000 to Holliman.

Altria, maker of Marlboros, gave $0.

While tobacco companies in 2007 opposed the final smoking bill, Holliman said pharmaceutical companies and insurers did not take a stance, and they haven't yet done so this time. "You would think that they would, though," he said.

"I will be talking with them, I'm sure, as we move this legislation through."

About 65 percent of restaurants in Mecklenburg County have already banned smoking, said Lovemore Masakadza, the county's tobacco control coordinator. A county database of smoke-free restaurants lists more than 1,400 eateries. And that's without a ban -- which is one reason why Hayes said a blanket prohibition isn't needed.

"The market is working," Hayes said. "The places that want to stay smoking will stay smoking. If that restaurant that allows smoking suffers in business, they'll change their smoking policy. But I don't believe the government needs to step in and tell us to do that."

Among restaurant and bar proprietors, opinion varies depending on the clientele they serve -- dives versus martini bars, for example. Some owners have told Creative Loafing a ban would undoubtedly hurt their business and would be inappropriate for their venue. But other owners have told Smoke-Free Mecklenburg that they would like to see a ban: A lack of cigarette smoke is healthier for employees, can save them smoking-related expenses, and the government's action would take the burden of the decision off them.

"It's definitely going to hurt certain places, and it's going to help certain places," said Reuben Cleveland, a manager at Solstice Tavern in NoDa.

He thinks Pennsylvania designed its restrictions correctly by banning smoking in bars and restaurants that do more than 20 percent of their business in food.

That would include Solstice, he noted, which has an outside patio where smokers could still inhale. "If you want to be a progressive city, then you have to move with the times," he said.

Jamey Haremza, general manager of Stool Pigeons Uptown, doesn't smoke and agrees with bans in public buildings. But for private businesses? "I'm just not a big fan of government telling a business what to do," he said.

Stool Pigeons is as much a bar as a restaurant, he said, and if it were required to ban smoking while non-food bars were not, it could lose business. Sometimes families who wander in from Discovery Place aren't happy that Stool Pigeons allows smoking, but other patrons have a different view. "People are actually happy you can smoke anywhere in here," he said.

Steve Casner, owner of Alexander Michael's, said the Fourth Ward restaurant began prohibiting smoking during lunch hours more than two years ago, and Memorial Day will make the two-year mark for a total ban in the restaurant. "We're more of a restaurant than a bar. Lunch was kind of obvious," Casner said. "This is a small place. A lot of people thanked me."

Business went up afterward, and people still thank him at least once a week for the decision. Still, even though he deemed it the right decision for himself and his employees, he's wary of a mandatory ban.

Nationally, however, the tide is inexorably turning in favor of bans. As of Jan. 4, the number of municipalities that required restaurants and bars be 100 percent smoke-free was 460, according to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. The group says 37 states and the District of Columbia ban smoking, in some combination or another, in workplaces, restaurants or bars.

Many studies have found that, overall, bars and restaurants haven't suffered financially after bans, though some industry representatives have disputed such findings as not being applicable to all dining sectors and bars. Other independent studies have found post-ban dips in sales.

The health benefits, however, are less debatable. A 2006 U.S. Surgeon General report concluded that no level of exposure to secondhand smoke is safe. Researchers have found considerable health benefits to banning smoking in public places; several studies of towns with bans have found reduced rates of heart attacks. (A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study did find that smokers drove farther to bars in neighboring counties that allowed smoking, resulting in an increase in drunk driving and alcohol-involved fatal accidents -- a finding that may be less germane in considering a statewide ban.)

"We have people [moving here] from the north, when they see people lighting up in restaurants, they wonder why have we not taken that step of making our work sites and restaurants smoke-free," said Masakadza, the county tobacco control coordinator.

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