NC lawmakers to tackle incendiary smoking ban debate
Charlotte's a city of newcomers, banks and high speed car races. It's also the largest city in the country without any kind of prohibition on smoking in public places. That's one of the first things Trina Ramirez noticed when she moved from California. "I moved here in December of 07," recalls Ramirez. "Shortly thereafter, new friends that I had made said 'Hey, come out to such and such restaurant.' And I remember it was a shock to me and I thought 'Wow.' I'm very fortunate to have been just living in a smoke-free state, California. It just really stirred up my passion for wanting to advocate." Ramirez took a job with the American Cancer Society in Charlotte, where she met grassroots organizer Patti Bossert. The two women are having lunch today at the Village Tavern, where a smoker has just lit up at the bar about 20 feet away. "I can smell it - I don't know if you guys can, but I can," says Bossert, grimacing. "We hear this all the time - people that come here to live or visit here: "We can't believe that a world-class like Charlotte is not smoke free. And we agree, there is just no excuse for that." Many Charlotte-area officials agree with Bossert, but they can't clear the air because North Carolina cities and counties are prohibited from passing smoking regulations stricter than state law. Currently smoking is prohibited in state-owned buildings and some local government buildings. Private businesses can pass their own bans. Anything more restrictive than that has been against the law since 1993, thanks to strong influence from the tobacco industry. "Remember North Carolina's tobacco history," says NC House Speaker Joe Hackney. "There are some folks from certain areas of the state that still feel like they're just not ready to vote in what would seem to be a vote against tobacco." North Carolina is still America's top tobacco producer and the industry employs more than 250,000 workers in North Carolina. But other industries are gaining influence, and Speaker Hackney says the mood is changing: "Every member of the house or senate won't vote for it, but I would predict for you that we would pass that this time." As further proof of the changing tide, the statewide association of county commissioners voted last week to support legislation that will let them regulate smoking in their counties, if they choose. However, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James says he's not completely sold on a smoking ban. "The real question is when you're in a public environment where it's diffused by commercial air conditioning systems but you know, there's a little whiff of smoke coming over a wall or around a corner, is that really something that's going to cause somebody to up and croak," says James. Health evidence aside, the biggest barrier to stronger statewide smoking regulations is conservative lawmakers who are reluctant to meddle in private business rights. Mecklenburg County Republican Representative Thom Tillis explains "to this point, the use of tobacco is a legal activity. Arbitrarily determining where a private property owner would have to do it or not, is something we think is problematic. I, for one, don't go into restaurants that allow smoking. I vote with my dollars and go elsewhere." Recent polls find more than 60 percent of North Carolinians support a ban on smoking in public places. And public opinion does seem to have influence in Mecklenburg County, where 65 percent of restaurants are already smoke-free. North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association President Paul Stone says his members prefer the choice be left to them, but adds they won't oppose a ban if it applies across the board. "They just don't want do lose business to somebody else that could take smokers in," says Stone. "Now if nobody can allow smoking then at least it's the same rules for everybody." Stone says the worst scenario would be allowing counties and cities to create their own smoking rules that might lure diners across borders. Soon York County in South Carolina is likely to pass a smoking ban. Trina Ramirez says she'll gladly drive south from Charlotte for smoke-free dining. Meanwhile, she and other local advocates keep up their efforts to pressure favorite spots like the Village Tavern, using small silver stickers. "We're gonna use the sticker that says "I have a health concern. I like your restaurant, but not the smoke. I'll come back when it's smoke free." And I usually just place it toward the bottom of the merchant receipt, so this is the receipt the management will see at the end of the day," demonstrates Ramirez. That sticker made the restaurant's manager smile knowingly. He says he's seen a lot of them. But he referred questions to Village Tavern's corporate owners. They declined to comment from their Winston Salem offices - in a building coincidentally named after RJ Reynolds.