RALEIGH, N.C. — It’s been five years since North Carolina banned smoking in restaurants and bars, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Touted as a game changer for a tobacco-producing state, the ban has been embraced to the point it has become a non-issue for most restaurant operators, employees and the public.
“Because it was a statewide ban, most people just accepted the limitations for what they are,” said Opie Kirby, owner and manager of Finnegan’s Wake in downtown Winston-Salem.
The restaurant, known as a smoking haven before the ban, spent thousands of dollars on renovations. It has reported a sizable pickup in business since the ban, which it accommodated by doubling its seating with 65 extra tables.
“People definitely still smoke, but they use our patio out back or the tables out front,” Kirby said.
About 24,000 establishments are covered by the law. Cigar bars, country clubs and fraternal organizations are exempt.
In the first month after the ban began Jan. 2, 2010, 537 complaints were filed and 282 businesses cited as potentially violating the new law, according to the N.C. Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch.
By mid-2011, the number of complaints and business cited had dropped to a weekly average of 20.
In the past year, there were several weeks when no complaints were filed statewide; when there were complaints, there often were just one or two.
Steven Hondos, owner of the Jimmy the Greek restaurant off University Parkway, said there was some initial griping from smokers.
“That was short term because everyone was following the same regulations, so they couldn’t complain of being discriminated against,” Hondos said. “Most people appreciated the change, and most don’t even give it a second thought today.”
A federal study released in August 2013 concluded North Carolina’s ban had no negative impact on businesses’ revenue and employment. The study was conducted by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through researchers at the Research Triangle Institute Foundation.
“This result is consistent with a study that found no impact from North Carolina’s smoke-free law on gross revenues in restaurants or bars,” the RTI researchers said.
There have been some inroads made in some Triad restaurants, bars and entertainment venues by users of electronic and vapor cigarettes. They produce a vapor that dissipates quicker than the smoke produced by a traditional cigarette and – depending on the sensitivity of one’s nose – has a more limited in-your-face presence.
“If a public venue is considered tobacco-free, then electronic cigarettes are prohibited,” said Beth Lovette, health director for the Appalachian District Health Department. State law views e-cigs as a tobacco product.
“However, managers and/or owners of smoke-free venues can choose to restrict/prohibit the use of electronic cigarettes.”
Anti-tobacco advocates say allowing the use of smokeless products, including moist snuff and snus, in bars and restaurants gives smokers an outlet for their habit rather than serving as another incentive to quit smoking.
It’s clear the popularity of e-cigs is surging. Analyst Bonnie Herzog of Wells Fargo Securities estimated there would be $2.5 billion in overall e-cig revenue in 2014. She projects up to $10 billion a year by 2017.
“I’ve not had one single call from a restaurant or the public about electronic cigarette use,” Lynn Minges, president and chief executive of the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in April. “There are still a lot of questions about these products and their standards and safety. There seems to be more we don’t know than we do.”
Kirby said his staff at Finnegan’s Wake “tends to perk up when we see someone using an e-cigarette because if it is a traditional cigarette, we want it put out.”
For context sake, Kirby said there have been a small number of customers using an e-cig inside the restaurant.
“We’ve discussed what to do about them, but until there are definitive safety studies and laws in place, we won’t set a policy,” Kirby said.