Anyone (okay, any nonsmoker) who has visited a city that has already banned smoking in restaurants and bars will tell you that we don't know what we're missing in Charleston. Aside from moving through a crowd of people huddled around the door, once inside, it's the same old bar, just no smoky, chokey bar feeling. And when you get home, forget about that layer of tar on your clothes.
Like bar nuts and men behaving badly, smoke is something Charleston's bar patrons have learned to deal with. Just as you wear a shirt that you don't mind getting some drunk guy's beer on, you also wear something that you don't mind throwing in the hamper as soon as you get home.
But Charleston officials are here to clean up your bar. They're less worried about your clothes and more about your lungs, but some restaurant and bar owners say it's taking the nanny state to a new place — private property. After years of debate, Charleston City Council is moving swiftly to approve a measure banning smoking from all workplaces, including bars and restaurants, effective this summer. The move follows Sullivan's Island's decision over the summer to ban the practice and the subsequent court battle that's likely headed for the S.C. Supreme Court.
Charleston's proposed ordinance received initial approval Jan. 9 and could see final approval by the end of the month. Though it's gone through a few drafts over the years, the new measure reaches past the doors of the buildings, prohibiting smoking within 15 feet of any door or window, a nearly impossible rule for any street-front bar or restaurant.
Now, the city isn't thinking about your best interests as a patron (well, at least that's not the first reason). They're worried about the employees of the restaurant, bar, or brothel that you're visiting. While paying customers can take their money wherever they want to, the men and women behind the bar or in the kitchen are sometimes chained to their jobs (figuratively, we hope).
"It may be there are many who can choose," says Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. "But the fact is people work where they can get a job."
And while it may not be one's choice to work in a place where their office mate refuses to bathe, ingesting that type of odor isn't considered a top priority by the U.S. Surgeon General, whose words against secondhand smoke were oft quoted during the City Council's deliberations earlier this month.
Eric Frank, one of the owners of King Street Grille, says he doesn't smoke, but he opposes the smoking ban because of what he expects it will do to his business based on what he's heard from fellow restaurateurs in New York and California where bans have been in place for years.
"They just won't go out, or they'll cross over and go to Mt. Pleasant," he says of smoking patrons.
The council voted 8-5 in support of the ban, with almost all ban supporters entrenched in their belief that smoke-free workplaces will save lives. Frank doesn't argue against the health benefits but says that it should be a choice by the patron, with plenty of restaurants downtown already smoke-free.
Except for an outside patio, downtown restaurant Fish opened smoke-free five years ago. Employees and customers have been supportive says owner Charles Patrick. The city's ban is necessary to address a public health crisis, he says.
"I'm of the view that cigarette smoke is hazardous debris," Patrick says.
While some might question the argument that this is just the tip of the iceberg, Frank notes the attacks now on trans fats and foie gras elsewhere.
"Who knows how far they're willing to go," he says.
The difficulty in turning around the smoke-free train was clearly evident during the public hearing that came before the City Council's initial vote. Nearly 20 people spoke in support of the ban, exceeding a 30-minute limit imposed by Riley. Ban opponents were clearly outnumbered and those who spoke included only a handful of bar owners, employees, and other business owners.
Efforts to oppose the ban will likely be moot at this point, Frank concedes, but he's considering legal action similar to the case filed against Sullivan's Island for its smoking ban.
One of the main concerns for Sullivan's Island is that patrons didn't have to go far if they wanted to find a place where they could enjoy both a beer and a smoke. Riley recognized that the problem is even worse for some city establishments that literally face unincorporated competition.
"Having those with different rules could be harmful to those businesses," he says, suggesting the delay in implementing the ban will give city businesses an opportunity to fight for smoking bans in front of other local governments. "At least we've set up the opportunity for that to happen."
Council members noted that there will have to be some tweaking to the ordinance. Hoping to avoid a collection of smokers standing directly in front of bars and restaurants, the bill requires a smoke-free zone within 15 feet of any door or window where stray smoke could drift indoors.
"As soon as you walk outside a restaurant, everyone is smoking," says Councilwoman Anne Frances Bleecker in regards to the impact's of New York's smoking ban.
While Charleston's effort to put some distance between smokers and other patrons seems practical for strip malls and stand-alone restaurants, the application of this particular rule on a downtown street would force smokers into the middle of the road. Also, some restaurants with established outdoor eating areas where smoking could be allowed typically have these areas directly beside the building, not 15 feet away.
Another aspect of the bill would allow existing cigar bars to stay in business, along with allowing hotels to offer a limited number of smoking rooms.
"We're not interested in putting any business out of business," says Councilman Paul Tinkler, one of the council members who introduced the ordinance.
If bar owners have their way, you'll be able to enjoy a beer and a cigarette, or at least a contact buzz. If Riley gets his way, your wardrobe will thank you, and your lungs might, too.