Smoking ban draws fire|Some residents fume, and others breathe a deep sigh of relief

Published 9:11 pm Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Staff Writer

Some local bar and restaurant owners are smoking mad about the tobacco ban Gov. Beverly Perdue plans to sign into law today. Others are mellow about the decision and say it will actually make their jobs easier.
“I was trying to accommodate my customers the best way I can, but now the government has actually taken that issue out of my hands,” said Jeff Hunnings, owner of the Mecca Grill on Market Street in Washington. “I feel like the government took the weight off of my shoulders.”
He said that the wishes of smokers and non-smokers (he has a section for each) haven’t blended well at the Mecca.
“Second-hand smoke is something that not everybody enjoys,” he said.
The law, which will take effect immediately, bans smoking indoors in bars, restaurants and government buildings. Noncompliance after a warning will be worth a $50 fine.
John Smith, who owns Southern Cheers Sports Bar, a bar and restaurant on 15th Street, worries the change will have a long-lasting impact on his business.
He owned a similar establishment in Ohio, but moved back to North Carolina after a smoking ban there cut his business by 24 percent, he said.
Smith, 68, said his bar is packed with smokers — about 80 percent of all his patrons. He thinks they’ll face a quandary now, he said.
“They can smoke outside, but they can’t drink outside,” he said. “They can drink inside, but can’t smoke inside.”
The ban landed on the governor’s desk today after clearing a vote by a slim majority in the N.C. House of Representatives.
Tobacco was long a staple crop in North Carolina, and a smoking ban once would have been unthinkable here. But the industry has changed in recent years with class-action lawsuits and the demise of the quota system, and tobacco cultivation in places such as Beaufort County has plummeted.
At the same time, public outcry over the health effects of second-hand smoke has increased in recent years, and other states have led the way by outlawing smoking in bars and restaurants.
The new legislation also will give local governments the authority to ban smoking in other public places, though private homes and vehicles are still protected areas.
A.G. Swanner, who owns the Rebel Tavern on River Road, was unfiltered in his opposition to the ban.
Swanner said government officials are hypocritical to call alcohol and tobacco harmful, then take tax revenue from those same items.
“How come they don’t stop making … liquor, and how come they don’t stop making … cigarettes?” he asked.
Because it is a private club, the Rebel will be able to keep its smoking section, which has become part of the place’s flavor.
But Swanner’s other establishment, Blackbeard’s Restaurant on Carolina Avenue, will be impacted.
Laws such as the smoking ban are fine in California, if that’s what Californians want, but it burns Swanner up to see them in North Carolina, he said.
And though second-hand smoke has become a rallying cry for anti-smoking advocates over the years, a patron at the Rebel said the smoke didn’t bother him.
“I haven’t smoked in 30 years, and I come in here every afternoon and have a couple drinks before I go home, and the smoke does not bother me,” said Gary Brinn, who was sitting with Swanner on Monday.