In January, something once considered unthinkable will come to pass. Across North Carolina—once the heartland of tobacco—smoking will be banned in bars and restaurants.
Smokers will have to go outside to indulge, and hookah bars will close down. The only exceptions the law allows are for cigar bars and private, nonprofit clubs.
“This is a bad idea,” declares a man who identifies himself only as “Steve,” finishing off a cigarette on the lower floor of Broadway’s (smoking allowed inside). “Private enterprise allows a bar owner to choose whether or not to allow it in their establishment. That’s the way it should be. It’s a scary precedent for government to try to control people’s choices.”
But right beside him, “Raymond” (who’s also an occasional smoker) couldn’t disagree more.
“No, I think the ban’s necessary,” he says. “Secondhand smoke is extremely harmful. It should be my right to go into a bar I like and not have to endanger my health. I come here because I like the people and the atmosphere—it’s my place.”
“If smoking offends you, you can choose to go to a nonsmoking bar,” Steve retorts. “It’s my choice, and it’s not harming anyone else.”
A few seats down the bar, Justin Rogers concedes that it’s “a valid debate. Personally, I’d like for bars to be less smoky, but I don’t think it’s the government’s business.”
“Maybe we’ll build a minigolf course in the back, try to qualify as a country club,” the bartender pipes up, to a chorus of laughs.
Public-smoking bans have become more and more common both in the United States and worldwide. North Carolina is the 26th state to approve such a law. Many major cities have also followed suit: 40 of the country’s 60 largest metropolitan areas have some sort of ban in place, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Oft-cited reasons include public-health concerns and the costs incurred by state governments due to the effects of smoking.
“This is a good thing from a public-health standpoint,” says Buncombe County Health Director Gibbie Harris told Xpress. “Smoking and second-hand smoke are the leading preventable causes of death we encounter and you can’t avoid those risk if you’re in a restaurant or bar and there’s smoking. Some people will say ‘oh, you can go somewhere else.’ But the employees there can’t go anywhere else, especially in this economy. We’ll do everything we can to help bars and restaurants comply with this law.”
Others, however, see a troubling intrusion by the state into what they feel are personal decisions, and in Asheville, the debate seems to be vigorous—and occasionally raging. Outside the Rankin Vault (no smoking inside), a group of bargoers seated around a metal table air vastly different opinions on the new rule.
“Rock ‘n’ roll was meant to be smoky,” Mark Williams opines. “North Carolina banning smoking is like a child disowning their parent after they supported them for years.”
“Bars already have a choice,” says Jamie Hetrie, just after finishing a cigarette. “And people can choose to go in them or not.”
“Yeah, smoking’s great if you want to get cancer,” Chris Broderdorr shoots back.
Over at the Asheville Yacht Club (smoking after 10 p.m. only), bartender Jamie Reel says he disliked smoking but doesn’t feel it’s state government’s affair.
“I don’t think it’s an appropriate area for government action,” he says between dishing out drinks. “But hey, you’re all too pretty to smoke.”
Down the street at the Flying Frog (smoking allowed inside the bar), bartender Eric Jorjensen feels the ban goes too far.
“I thought this was a free country,” he observes. “As long as tobacco’s legal—and it is—it should be up to the property owner to decide to allow it or not in their establishment. Do they really want to hurt bars in a recession? Hell, alcohol’s more harmful than smoking: I’ve never seen anyone start a fight because they smoked too much. Are they going to ban that next?”
A few seats down, Asheville resident Jacqueline Edwards sips a gin and tonic and says she’s thankful for the coming ban.
“I think it’s a good thing. Smoke carries, and it will be good to go to a bar and not end up smelling like cigarettes at the end of the night,” she notes. “People can still smoke outside.”
Good for business?
Finishing up a sandwich on the patio outside, Flying Frog owner/head chef Vijay Shastri predicts that the ban will actually boost business.
“I think it’s great,” he says. “We’ve got a large patio area out here; we’re not going to lose business. It’s not a big deal. In fact, I think it will help. Right now, there’s a lot of maintenance costs associated with allowing smoking inside. It puts everyone on a level playing field.”
For some, of course, the stakes are higher. The state’s 20 hookah bars don’t have the same exemption that cigar clubs managed to wrangle. That puts longtime Asheville fixture Hookah Joe’s in a tight spot.
“The bar’s not going to close down, but it certainly affects whether we can allow smoking or not,” notes owner Joseph McHugh, adding that hookah bar owners are pushing for an exemption.
“There’s also the whole definition of smoking. [The law] defines it as the igniting of tobacco. We actually don’t ignite: We bake the molasses the tobacco is soaked in,” he points out. “That’s another possible loophole we could try to exploit.”
Still, McHugh continues, “I don’t think it’s really fair that the restaurant guilds are pushing it so hard because they want to ‘even the field.’ I’m over 18; I should be able to decide to smoke where I want. It’s unfair.”