New smoking ban gets mixed reaction around Boone

A pending ban on smoking in bars and restaurants has met mixed local reaction, with smokers feeling discrimination while non-smokers say they are being protected from secondhand smoke.
Josh Germaine and Steve Mahnke say smokers' rights are being disrespected in a new smoking ban. Photo by Scott Nicholson Beginning Jan. 2, 2010, smoking will be prohibited in bars and restaurants that are open to the public. Though nearly 80 percent of Watauga County restaurants had already voluntarily enforced such a restriction, now business owners face penalties if they let customers light up.

John Rush, a bartender at Murphy’s in Boone, said he was a non-smoker and welcomed the change, estimating that half of the bar’s patrons smoked. “From my own enjoyment being at work, I’m looking forward to not being around smoke,” he said. “People will smoke out on the deck or nearby. If business goes down, I’d be surprised.”

Ben Smith, who owns Watauga Insurance Agency in Boone, believes restaurants and bars will get a new, larger clientele after going smoke-free. “I’ve never smoked,” he said. “Four members of my family smoked. They should ban smoking (completely).”

Smith, who is also a member of the bluegrass band Upright and Breathing, said smoking diminished the pleasure of many of his performances. “We have friends who like to see bands, but they’re less inclined to go out when it’s a smoke-filled place,” he said. “You’re going to lose half your clientele, but you’ll get a whole new clientele that comes out.”

Steve Mahnke, a local smoker from Ohio who said businesses suffered after a similar ban was passed there, believes smokers face increasing discrimination. “Nobody wants to go to a bar and stand outside and smoke a cigarette,” Mahnke said. “I grew up in this environment, and all the old places I used to go just aren’t the same.”

Mahnke said smokers are facing social pressure as well as legal and financial pressure, noting cigarettes were approaching $5 per pack. “It definitely costs the government a lot of money, but they make a lot of money off of it, too,” he said.

Josh Germaine, a smoker, said he didn’t agree with the need for the ban because people were still going to go out and eat even in places that allowed smoking. “I’m a smoker, so I’m biased,” he said. “There should be some smoker’s rights.”

“This is a historic day for North Carolina,” said N.C. Gov. Beverly Perdue in signing the legislation Tuesday. “But more important than the history that we are making is the positive impact we are having on public health. By banning smoking in our restaurants and bars, we will greatly reduce the dangers of secondhand smoke and lower health care costs for families.”

Those who violate the ban after warnings are subject to a fine of $50, while restaurants face a $200 fine for allowing smoking, with local health departments responsible for enforcing the law. Tobacco consumption is still allowed in private clubs and cigar bars.

Conner McGrath, who is co-owner of the tobacco business Koncepts Hookahs in Boone, said even though his business is built on tobacco consumption, he asks cigarette smokers to go outside. However, he supports personal choice and called the law “social engineering.”

“Basically, I think cigarette smoking is probably a bad habit, just like any form of drinking or barbecue,” McGrath said. “It’s a symptom of the ‘nanny state.’ Grown-ups should be able to do whatever they want and customers should be free in who they give their business.”

McGrath said he wasn’t sure how the new law would affect his business, but said the state could pass laws that could affect any business. “It’s terrifying,” he said. “We’ve only been open two months. We’re completely at the mercy of whatever Raleigh passes.”

A self-described smoker who is “trying to quit,” McGrath said the law “seems like a pretty thin and convoluted rationale to me.” He said it was more of a free-market than a public-health issue and believes the new law will hurt small businesses.

According to a report by the United States Surgeon General, secondhand smoke causes the death of approximately 50,000 people a year. A study prepared by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina found that exposure to secondhand smoke costs North Carolinians $289 million annually.

More than 30 states have already passed similar laws, but North carolina’s was significant because of its tradition as a “tobacco state.” Last year the state’s farmers produced nearly 385 million pounds of tobacco worth more than $677 million.

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