Smoking ban value still a burning question 5 years later

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HIGH POINT, N.C. -- We've come a long way since the statewide smoking ban took effect in restaurants and bars in North Carolina, but both sides still debate how far.

Anti-smoking advocates argue the ban has helped improve the air quality in public venues by 89 percent. They also say visits to the emergency room because of heart attacks and strokes are down 21 percent. Finally, they say there are 9 percent fewer emergency room visits due to asthma related problems.

“I think people just expect public places to be smoke free, they're surprised if they're not,” said Mary Gillett, tobacco prevention coordinator for Guilford County.

Gillett believes the ban has also convinced a significant number of people, especially bar and restaurant workers, to quit smoking. She said the easiest way to quit is to utilize the statewide QuitLine which is available around the clock. That number is 1-800-QUIT-NOW and is available in English and Spanish.

Smokers shut out of most restaurants and bars in North Carolina because of the legislation still feel like there’s little net gain -- health or otherwise -- from the ban.

“I'm a healthy, big guy and I smoke so I don't think it's changed anything in our society,” said Mike Edgett. “I just had my mom pass away from lung cancer, she never smoked a day in her life but that's how it goes.”

Even a doctor at High Point Regional Medical Center is skeptical of the state health department numbers saying one in five people are avoiding heart attacks and strokes thanks to the smoking ban.

“Being in the trenches I haven't really seen a big drop off in the number of people having heart attacks,” said Dr. Tom Folk, a cardiologist.

Dr. Folk says he doesn’t see the ban as being a major factor in encouraging people to quit either.

“I think it’s helped a lot of people cut down on how much they smoke but I don't think it’s been a motivating factor in helping them quit,” said Folk. “If we can convince them to stop smoking there has to be a significant event heart attack or a family member that has had an event that has triggered them to think about quitting.”

Another argument against the ban in 2010 was the anticipated blow to bars and restaurants. Edgett says it has cut back on the number of times he visits bars and restaurants.

But restaurant owners say the only thing that has held back sales is a weak economy.

“We still have the same customers we started out with, we just keep adding more,” said Esther Asprogiannis, owner of the Pepper Mill Cafe in High Point.

Asprogiannis says, at first, the ban brought complaints from smokers. Now it’s the non-smokers who complain about the lingering smell of smoke.

“Now when you have a non-smoker and someone walks into a building and someone is smoking you can really tell it really stands out,” said Asprogiannis.

Edgett says he and his wife smoke but don’t do it inside their own home or cars.

“We consider the ramifications to our children but also we know what we're doing to ourselves,” said Edgett. “I don't like [the smoking ban]. I think we've become the minority in society.”

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