N.C. smoking ban upheld by complaint system

The smoke officially cleared Jan. 2 in North Carolina, but public health officials say it could take a few more months for the dust to settle with the state’s new indoor smoking ban.

Some warning letters have gone out to businesses not complying, but most owners appear to be adhering to the new rules, said Erin Morrissette, tobacco prevention educator for the New Hanover County Health Department.

Morrissette, who is fielding complaints made about New Hanover County establishments, said the ones made so far appear to be about owners getting used to the law and not repeat violators.

“I think that we’re pretty typical as far as comparing to other states” that have adopted smoking bans, she said. “Always in the very beginning, it takes about six months for them to basically drop off to just the people who are going to just not follow the law.”

Jeanette Marie English enjoys a cigarette while sitting outside Southpaw on Princess St. in downtown Wilmington Friday Jan. 15, 2010.

Jeanette Marie English enjoys a cigarette while sitting outside Southpaw on Princess St. in downtown Wilmington Friday Jan. 15, 2010.

When state lawmakers crafted the rules to prohibit smoking in most of North Carolina’s bars and restaurants, they based the idea on a complaint system and left it up to local health departments to enforce.

In the law’s initial weeks, nearly 370 people across the state told on bars, restaurants and smokers for not complying.

Of the calls made to a phone line created to field complaints, people reported seeing restaurants without required no-smoking signs, bars that still had ashtrays out, and employees and patrons still puffing away.

New Hanover County has logged the fifth-highest number of complaints so far among the state’s 100 counties.

Twenty complaints were called in about New Hanover County establishments as other urban areas like Wake and Mecklenburg counties saw even more complaints.

Brunswick County bars and restaurants have had four complaints, and Pender County has had one, according to the most recent update from the state through Jan. 17.

But complaints, many of which are made anonymously, do not necessarily mean business owners will have to pay. Officials with local health departments are responsible for verifying the complaints before imposing the fines, which can run as much as $200 a day after two written warnings.

Morrissette said she has sent out 15 warning letters, and no one has had to be fined.

“I think it’s going really well considering how many bars and restaurants are in New Hanover County,” she said.

Patricia Moity, one of the owners of Caprice Bistro in downtown Wilmington, said her smoking patrons have been cooperative, even during the cold temperatures earlier this month that made an after-dinner smoke a chilly prospect.

“We kept warning them, ‘It’s coming, it’s coming,’ ” she said, adding that she does not think the ban has negatively affected business.

Though most people are complying, it doesn’t mean everyone is happy about it.

“I don’t think it was a good idea,” said Scott Hickman, who lives in Castle Hayne and was smoking in downtown Wilmington last week. “They should’ve left it up to the owner to do what they want in their own place.”

New Hanover County Health Department officials sat down last week with representatives of one bar, who say they do not have to comply because the bar falls under an exemption allowing smoking in live performances.

Denny Best, who manages the Juggling Gypsy Cafe, met with Health Director David Rice on Thursday to discuss their differing interpretations.

Best, who has received a warning letter from the health department, put up a Web cam in the hookah bar that streams all the time on the Internet. He said that made the Gypsy a performance space.

New Hanover County Health Director David Rice said they discussed the warning letter that was sent and the law but did not go into any more specifics.

“They must comply if they are a restaurant or a bar,” he said. “The ball’s in their court.”

Other hookah bar owners in the state also are challenging the law and whether it should apply to them. They were unsuccessful in getting an exemption similar to one granted to cigar bars into the measure when it was under debate.

Some hookah bar owners have said they’re waiting to get fined so they can challenge it in court.

“As soon as one of us get cited, we’ll all pool our resources and go to court,” Best said.

Besides owners, individuals who refuse to snuff their smokes also could be fined $50.

It does not count as a criminal charge, but it is an infraction, which leaves it up to local law enforcement to enforce, said Ann Houston Staples, director of public education and community for the state’s Tobacco and Prevention Control Branch.

Officials with the Wilmington Police Department and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office said they have not had a deluge of calls for authorities to go out and get people to put out their cigarettes.

While the ban has appeared to work indoors, moving people outside has created a whole other problem, Wilmington officials said.

The number of cigarette butts tossed onto downtown streets and sidewalks has gone up significantly since the ban started, said Malissa Talbert, the city’s spokeswoman.

She said the two workers who clean up downtown every morning at 3:30 a.m. now have a lot more sweeping to do.

Talbert said the city added 25-30 more cigarette receptacles downtown in anticipation of the new ban. But there are no plans to add more workers to clean because of the city’s tight budget.

“We’re doing the best we can to keep up, and so far we have been able to keep up,” she said, adding, however, that “it’s a significant issue, and we expect it to continue and probably get worse as the weather gets warmer and we have more traffic downtown.”

source: www.starnewsonline.com

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