Commentary: Smoking law reflects a changing North Carolina
The state that made Tobacco Road famous ó indeed, a state in many ways built on the golden leaf ó has entered a new era.
Thanks to a close vote in the state House, legislators signed off on a law outlawing smoking in bars and restaurants across the state beginning Jan. 2, 2010.
The move reflects a change of the public attitude toward smoking. Perhaps even more, it reflects the waning power of Big Tobacco over Tar Heel politicians. It’s hard to recall that the legislative building itself was one of the last public places where you could light up indoors as recently as 2003. Legislators pointed to the dangers of secondhand smoke as a reason for the recent 62-56 vote. American Heart Association volunteer Lee Storrow, a student from Asheville who attends UNC Chapel Hill, said the move means his peers “can choose to go out with friends and not have to choose between their health and having a good time on a Friday or Saturday night.”
The news was not greeted with such enthusiasm in all corners. Don Gundry, owner of Mack Kells on Tunnel Road, said, “I’m looking down the bar right now, and it’s probably 90 percent of my customers smoking in here. Now we’ve gotten down to where our government is controlling the actions of individuals, which is absolutely absurd.” Mack Kells is a private club. Critics have pointed to exemptions in the law for country clubs and cigar bars ó the stomping grounds, in all likelihood, of the powerful and well-connected. Say, state legislators. Regarding the Jan. 2 initiation date, Gundry said, “So I have enough time to sell this place, right?”
North Carolina is not the first state to take such steps. According to the N.C. Alliance for Health, it will be the 23rd state to mandate smoke-free workplaces. It is, however, the first tobacco state to make a move of this nature. The legislation, HB2, is designed to protect people from secondhand smoke at work and in public places like grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations. It doesn’t prohibit smoking at outdoor sections of restaurants and bars.
The debate over the health effects of smoking, and of secondhand smoke, is over. Tobacco represents the leading cause of preventable deaths in North Carolina, and estimates of its cost to the health care system run into the billions of dollars. Still, it’s astounding to think how quickly the ground shifted in this state regarding attitudes toward tobacco. Come Jan. 2, it’s going to shift even more.