Lights Out?

More than half of U.S. cities have taken the smoke-free plunge, but it will be awhile before Charlotte joins them

When Angelica Knutsman separated from her husband a few years ago, her stay-at-home-mom status quickly transitioned to working single mother. Torn between spending time with her three-year-old son during the day and supporting her family financially, Knutsman began bartending at The Yellow Rose in south Charlotte. Knutsman's soft voice is rougher and raspier than it was the day before; she's recovering from her late-night shift bartending. She says it's just another side effect of her smoke-filled workplace.

"It's a very difficult choice. I have to choose between health and money," Knutsman admits. "But my son doesn't get to miss me as much because I work at night."

When Knutsman moved to Charlotte five years ago from California, she joined Smoke-free Mecklenburg (SFM), a coalition supporting local and state smoking regulations. Coming from a state that's been smoke free for years, she says people need to be more conscious of health issues related to secondhand smoke. Her own experience with eye irritation and sore throats, which last for an entire week, prompts nostalgia for the smoke-free air in California.

"Charlotte needs to become less self-centered. It's about the people who don't have a choice," says Knutsman. "This issue should have already been taken care of—we're way behind."

Thirty-one states have passed regulations limiting smoking in public places, including Florida, Louisiana, and Ohio. Thirteen of those are 100 percent smoke free in bars, restaurants, and workplaces. North Carolina is one of eighteen states that don't have any statewide smoke-free regulations. Others have varying ordinances in certain cities or counties. North Carolina is not one of these states.

In 2006, SFM hired Clark & Chase Research to conduct a survey with Mecklenburg County registered voters. It found that 75.5 percent of residents support laws making restaurants, bars, and all other indoor workplaces smoke free.

The fuming debate began in 1995 when City Council Member Susan Burgess received a letter from a constituent inquiring if Charlotte would ever go smoke free. With a background in public health, Burgess clung to the issue and proposed that the City Council develop a bill that would ban smoking inside public places.

"I have been in public office since 1990 and never in my experience have I ever received a response to that one simple query: what would it take to make Charlotte smoke free?" says Burgess.

The main concern is health, she says. The 2006 surgeon general's warning says scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke; breathing even a little of it can be harmful to your health. Concentrations of many cancer-causing and toxic chemicals are potentially higher in secondhand smoke than in the smoke inhaled by smokers.

There are cost issues as well. Annually, an average of $10 billion of health care costs in the U.S. are associated with secondhand-smoke exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And secondhand-smoke exposure is responsible for 150,000 to 300,000 new cases of bronchitis and pneumonia in children younger than eighteen months, resulting in 7,500 to 15,000 hospitalizations a year.

Jennifer Roberts, chair of the county commission, says if she could do anything to better public health and decrease taxes, it would be to get rid of smoking indoors. "We're dealing with a ton of smoke-related health implications every day, including their cost," she says. "I think we should be allowed, the local government, to make the decision ourselves."

In a British Medical Journal study, researchers discovered that, after a smoking regulation was enforced in Helena, Montana, hospital admissions for heart attacks fell 40 percent. After a court struck down the regulation, admissions returned to the original number.  

This January, the North Carolina House of Representatives will vote to prohibit smoking in food and lodging establishments and state government buildings and to allow local governments to prohibit smoking in public places and workplaces. The House last voted in May 2007, defeating the measure by six votes. Public-smoking advocates (i.e., tobacco industry lobbyists) often trumpet personal liberty as they work to keep antismoking legislation from passing. But, like most things in politics, the issue in North Carolina comes down to money.

Two-thirds of an average cigarette is flue-cured tobacco and the remaining is burly and other blends. Around two-thirds of flue-cured tobacco is grown in North Carolina, and burly is grown in the western part of the state. In addition, two-thirds of cigarettes manufactured in the United States are made in North Carolina.

"[Antismoking legislation] is not happening any time soon," says North Carolina tobacco lobbyist Roger Bone. "Taxes are a major factor as well as employment and production."

Bone is right. Last year, North Carolina's gross domestic product was about $371 billion, with tobacco farming accounting for $587 million of that. The tobacco industry adds an estimated $7 billion to the state's economy. And it employs 255,000 North Carolinians. That's a lot of voters.

"I would be surprised if the effort to make North Carolina smoke free will happen in the immediate future," says City Council Member John Lassiter. "A number of steps have to be made." Lassiter explains that with property rights and a person's individual freedom along with North Carolina's historical (and monetary) connection to the tobacco industry, it's going to be an uphill battle for Charlotte and the state, for that matter, to become smoke free.

The biggest obstacle for antismoking advocates is something called the preemption law. Passed in 1993 as an amendment to the Substance Abuse Bill by House Judiciary Committee One, the preemption law is the tobacco industry's biggest victory. It restricts tobacco control to the state level, so local governments are unable to enact smoking regulations on their own. However, there are ways to surpass the law. If a bill is passed by the North Carolina House of Representatives and Senate and signed by the governor enforcing smoke-free laws statewide or allowing cities and counties to enact their own laws, it's possible. However, there are only two counties in the state that have the ability to overcome exemption from this law. These two counties, Mecklenburg and Wake, can be exempted from the preemption law because of their population size (more than 650,000) and because their boards of health are elected. The process is arduous and complex, but, little by little, states and counties are breaking past the preemption law each year.

Patricia Bossert moved to Charlotte in 2006 from Florida (another state with a preemption law), where she worked in an organization similar to SFM. "We tried for more than twenty years to get the Legislature to pass a smoke-free-air bill and they would not," she says. Eventually, they got enough signatures to put antismoking regulations on a statewide ballot, where it passed overwhelmingly. North Carolina law doesn't allow citizens to place issues on the statewide ballot.

Mohammad Jenatian, president of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance, insists Charlotte doesn't need a law prohibiting smoking in restaurants, bars, and hotels because they already have the choice to go smoke free.

"Bottom line, unless someone is totally out of their mind, their job is to accommodate their customers. Any bar or restaurant or hotel in Charlotte, if their customers want smoke free, can offer it as an amenity," he says.

Many restaurant and bar owners are hesitant to go smoke free because they fear losing customers. Bossert says if there were regulations, no business would be lost because all restaurants, bars, and hotels would be required to go smoke free. Knutsman says that after regulations were passed in California, restaurants and bars made extra efforts to accommodate smokers, like expanding patios and adding space heaters.

Says Burgess, "It's a matter of time until this entire country does what Cuba, Ireland, Italy, and other countries have done and making public places 100 percent smoke free. The science is indisputable: secondhand smoke kills. It certainly is injurious to others who are forced to breathe it, particularly in workplace settings like bars and restaurants. I do think that North Carolina will go smoke free. We're just going to be on the tail end instead of the leading edge."