Few miffed in smoking ban's first year

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 8, 2011

By Shavonne Potts
When the state banned smoking in restaurants and bars, most adapted by providing designated smoking areas outside.
Since the law went into effect a year ago, complaints and violations have decreased, said Environmental Health Manager Lynn Aldridge.
In the first six months in Rowan County, from Jan. 2-Aug. 29, 22 documented complaints at 12 establishments came in and two of those were verified as violations.
In the latter part of the year, about a third of that number of complaints came in and only one was verified as a violation.
For the year, Rowan County had 30 documented complaints at 19 establishments and three were verified as violations.
The law requires enclosed areas of almost all restaurants and bars to be smoke-free. Smoking is also banned in enclosed areas of hotels, motels and inns if food and drink are prepared there.
There are a few exceptions to the law:
• Cigar bars.
• Private clubs or country clubs.
• Restaurants that are not required to comply with sanitation laws.
Smoking is permitted in 20 percent of guest rooms in lodging establishments.
One bar, Gina’s, openly disregarded the law, according to the owner’s boyfriend, Scott Gentry, who spoke to the Post six months ago. The establishment didn’t fall under the law because it was a private club. The bar continued to let its patrons smoke, despite being informed by the Health Department it was in violation.
Gentry had said the business was compliant because it met the criteria of a private club, which is an exemption under the law.
Bars are inspected by the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Gentry had said by the definition from the state ABC Commission, the bar was a private club.
Aldridge however disagreed, saying the bar was not a private club. The bar was fined in March and seven months later closed.
Gentry blames the smoking ban as part of the reason for the close.
“Customers stayed away,” he said.
Patrons told him they stopped going to the bar because they knew they couldn’t smoke. Gentry, who assisted at the bar, said they never told customers not to smoke. In fact, they never removed ashtrays, as required by the law.
Gentry said this week he still stands by his belief that the law is unconstitutional.
“They are telling private businesses, small businesses, what they can and can’t do,” he said.
He compared the law to telling major retailers like Walmart what products to sell.
“When the government starts telling a private business owner what they can do in their business, what’s the next step to tell churches what they can worship?” he asked.
He did not elaborate on the other reason for the business closing.
The ban did not terribly affect Castaways, said co-owner Luke Livengood.
The seafood and oyster bar set up a smoking area outside for customers.
“With our type of restaurant, it’s not really affected us in a negative way,” Livengood said.
The restaurant has regular customers who did not let having to go outside for a smoke keep them from returning.
“I can’t really say that I’ve seen a change at all. We have some regular customers who smoke and they still come,” he said.
Livengood said he’s not entirely happy with having customers go outside.
“I don’t like the designated smoking area outside. It’s counterproductive to getting them in the restaurant, but we do have some loyal customers,” he said.
He believes it is the right of a business owner if he or she chooses to allow smoking in their establishment.
The ban has pros and cons, said bartender Valerie Gallimore, who works at the Carriage Room.
Before the ban, people smoked all the time in the bar. As a smoker, Gallimore even sometimes felt inundated with smoke.
“We’ve been listening to people complain about it,” she said.
Gallimore said the new law hasn’t really affected the business. “We have a big ashtray outside and have a couple of tables set up,” she said.
Customers can go to an area just outside the door to smoke.
Designated smoking areas must have at least two open sides, meaning it can’t be completely closed off. Any fencing must be partial, Aldridge said.
One business, Saturday Night Lounge in Kannapolis, received a violation. The name of the bar later changed to Players Sports Bar and Club.
So far, no Rowan business has had more than one violation. Any business that reaches a third violation is subject to a $200 fine. The state leaves it up to each county to determine if the fine will be one time or per day.
Aldridge said the Board of Health will discuss that distinction at its meeting next week. The board can choose to have the fine lifted only after the owner notifies the health department and corrects the problem. The health department has to verify the change.
The owner can appeal the board of health’s decision. Aldridge said in Pitt County, four bar owners did just that, filed a lawsuit and won.
The owners argue the application of the law is unequal because under the ban, patrons can drink and smoke at a country club or fraternal organization like the VFW, but can’t do the same at other private clubs.
The attorney argued it was an “invalid distinction, improperly based in law.” The judge in the case agreed.
The Pitt County Health Department filed an appeal against the judge’s decision, which could take up to a year in court.
Aldridge said this case could set a precedent for future appeals.
“We knew it would be challenging,” he said of the first year, especially the first few months.
Smoking violations first year
• Gina’s, 900 Mooresville Road, Salisbury, first violation, warning letter, March.
• The Buccaneer, 440 Barringer Road, Salisbury, first violation, warning letter, August.
• Saturday Night Lounge, 2416 N. Main St., Kannapolis, first violation, warning letter, September.
Data provided by the Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch
Contact Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.