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Tobacco-rich N.C. bans smoking in restaurants

Golden leaf was once state’s top cash crop

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press / January 2, 2010

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DURHAM, N.C. - In dozens of states, Gary Richards would not have been able to light up a Marlboro before tucking into his meat-lover’s pizza, as he did at Satisfaction Restaurant & Bar this week. But in North Carolina, the nation’s leading tobacco producer, limits on indoor smoking have lagged behind those in much of the country.

That changes today, when smoking in restaurants and bars is banned in the state that is home to two major tobacco companies and where the golden leaf helped build Duke and Wake Forest universities.

“There’s smokers and there’s nonsmokers. We’ve gotten along in the past,’’ Richards, 52, said this week during a pre-meal smoke at the restaurant inside a former tobacco warehouse. “Why can’t I come in here and have my beer and a couple of slices of pizza and a cigarette?’’

The dangers of secondhand smoke to employee health and complaints from patrons about the smell finally won out when the Legislature approved the ban in 2009 after years of failures.

“This law doesn’t tell anybody they shouldn’t smoke,’’ said state Representative Hugh Holliman, a lung cancer survivor whose sister died of lung cancer. He led the charge for the legislation. “It’s saying nonsmokers should have the same right to breathe clean air.’’

North Carolina is a relative latecomer to tobacco prohibitions in public places. North Carolina is at least the 29th state to ban smoking in restaurants and 24th for bars, according to the American Lung Association.

The new prohibitions represent a dramatic turn for a state that produces nearly half of the nation’s tobacco.

The headquarters for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Inc. remain in North Carolina, where colonists began growing tobacco in the 1600s. The leaf became the top cash crop for eastern North Carolina farmers.

But the golden leaf’s role has changed dramatically as the state shifted from a predominantly agricultural economy to one led by manufacturing, and most recently by services and technology.

In 1978, tobacco accounted for 34 percent of all farm income in North Carolina, or $1.1 billion. Thirty years later tobacco production fell to $687 million, or only 7 percent of farm income, according to federal agricultural data. The amount of tobacco grown also fell during the same period from about 850 million pounds to 390 million pounds.

About 21 percent of the state’s adult population smoked in 2008, compared with 18 percent nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other traditional tobacco-growing states have few, if any, statewide restrictions on smoking in public places and work sites. Virginia passed a statewide ban that took effect Dec. 1 but restaurants and bars can get around it if they have separate ventilation systems for smoking and nonsmoking sections.

“Nationally, it’s a huge step,’’ said Thomas Carr, the lung association’s national policy manager. “It just proves that if North Carolina can do it, then any state can prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants.’’

The state has mailed packets to 24,000 restaurants and bars, including “no smoking’’ signs they must post. The changes begin today so they would not interfere with New Year’s celebrations. Nonprofit private clubs and most cigar bars are exempt.

Restaurant owners are generally pleased with the ban, particularly because it includes bars, according to Paul Stone with the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. Many bars would have been exempt under previous legislation that failed.

“It’s a level playing field across the state,’’ said Mike Kelly, a nonsmoker who owns Kelly’s Restaurant in the beach town of Nags Head. “I don’t think it will affect our business hardly at all.’’

Many restaurants already prohibited smoking before the ban. Some will invest in outdoor patios where smokers can light up.

Still, some smokers contend customers could avoid a bar if the smoke bothers them.

“I’m always concerned when you start leaning on folks’ rights and you couch it in the public good,’’ said Sam Johnson, 48, of Durham, as he smoked a Salem at the Satisfaction bar.

At a nearby table, nonsmokers such as Carolina Guthrie said they have just as much right to frequent bars without putting their health, or wardrobe, at risk.

“When people smoke around you, you take it home with you,’’ said Guthrie, a sixth-grade science teacher.

A haze has covered Satisfaction for years on weekend nights as families who come for pizza and subs give way to the late-night bar crowd. But tobacco’s presence will be reduced to the name “Brightleaf Square,’’ still on signs at the complex.

“Personally,’’ said owner Staton Ellis, “I’m not going to miss walking through the smoke.’’