When Kelly Clark's husband moved from Atlanta to North Charleston, he was shocked to find that such a large city allowed smoking at indoor businesses. She still remembers his reaction when he arrived at the restaurant he was hired to manage and found out there was a smoking section: "Seriously? You're kidding, right?"
Now Clark, a member of North Charleston's Citizens' Advisory Council, is pushing hard behind the scenes for a smoke-free ordinance in the City of North Charleston. There's a possibility that by the end of the year, her husband's restaurant will no longer have an indoor smoking section (the restaurant, a national chain, asked him not to give out his name or employer).
"When he works on the weekend, he comes home and he sounds like a smoker," Clark says. "He came from Atlanta to marry me. The last thing I want to do is put his health in jeopardy."
North Charleston is the only one of the state's top 10 largest cities that still allows indoor smoking, and it is among a dwindling few local municipalities in that category. When Charleston County Council voted to ban smoking in indoor workplaces last Tuesday night, creating a rule that applies to all unincorporated parts of the county but not to municipalities within it, the boundaries of smoke-free territory edged a little bit closer to the holdout city. The county was following in the footsteps of a long series of governments that banned public smoking, including the City of Charleston, Sullivan's Island, Mt. Pleasant, Isle of Palms, Hollywood, Ravenel, and Summerville.
In North Charleston, City Council previously considered a smoking ban in 2008, but it was snuffed out by a 6-4 vote. This time around, three freshman council members and a crusade by a group called the Smoke Free Lowcountry Coalition could sway the vote in favor of a ban.
Back in 2008, Councilman Bob King helped lead the charge for a smoke-free ordinance in North Charleston. He rebutted the arguments against the ban, including that it would lead to decreased business at bars and restaurants that currently serve smoking customers. "Have you been down to Charleston lately?" King says, referring to the bars that have gone smoke-free since the Holy City enacted a ban in 2007. "They seem to be doing OK."
There's one major obstacle to a smoking ban in North Charleston, though: Mayor Keith Summey is an outspoken opponent of the ordinance, and not only does he get to vote on council items, but King says Summey still holds a lot of sway with certain council members. "The mayor is a very persuasive person," King says.
Mayor Summey, who is not a smoker, has his argument ready. "I do realize it's a health issue," Summey says, "but I also realize that government sometimes intervenes too much in people's private business. If I want to go into a public place that allows smoking, I have a right to. I have a right not to go. I have a right when I go to apply for a job, if there's smoking allowed in the facility, I have a right to either apply for the job or not apply for the job."
Summey's son, Charleston County Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey, was also the only council member to vote nay on Charleston County's smoke-free ordinance. "It's a property rights thing, and it's a common-sense thing," the younger Summey said after the vote.
Winning a convert
Shortly after Dwight Stigler won a seat on North Charleston City Council in 2011, Kelly Clark approached him about pushing for a new smoke-free ordinance. Clark, one of Stigler's constituents, explained her husband's work situation and asked Stigler if he would do something about it.
Stigler's response was less than enthusiastic at first. He was still new to the Council, and he wasn't sure he wanted to handle what he called a "hot potato issue" so early in his career. Besides, he says, "I had that feeling of 'That's just government getting in the way, taking rights away.' I had that kind of mentality. I'm very conservative-minded." But Clark didn't give up. She joined up with Smoke Free Lowcountry, a group that has been advocating for similar rules in the Charleston area since 1989, and she continued to present her arguments to Stigler and the other council members.
In time, Stigler came around to the idea, and he became what council member Ron Brinson describes as "the hard-charging proponent of the smoking ban." What changed was his view of how personal rights played into the matter. "If anything, we have a right to breathe smoke-free air," Stigler says. "If you think about it, 85, 90 percent of the population doesn't smoke, yet that 10, 15 percent imposes their right, which is an entitlement attitude, saying, 'Hey, we should be able to light up and smoke wherever we want.'"
At an Aug. 17 meeting, North Charleston City Council asked city attorney Brady Hair to draft a smoke-free ordinance. Council will consider and revise the ordinance at a Committee of the Whole meeting on Sept. 20, and if all goes well, they will take it up for a first reading at a public council meeting on either Sept. 27 or Oct. 11.
"It's going to look pretty much exactly like Charleston and Mt. Pleasant's," Hair says of the ordinance. Two of the state's earliest smoke-free ordinances, in Greenville and Sullivan's Island, faced appeals in court, and as a result, Hair says most of the state's recent smoking bans have been closely modeled on the revised versions of those cities' laws.
City Council has 10 members, and the mayor gets a vote on council items, too. Right now, Stigler thinks he has six council members on his side, just enough to pass the ordinance 6-5.
"I'm not gonna take this ass-whipping from Charleston County."
That's Richard Ruth, owner of Richard's Bar & Grill, and you might say he's displeased with the Charleston County smoking ban. His bar is situated in a donut hole of unincorporated county land on U.S. 17 that is surrounded by the Town of Mt. Pleasant, and for 24 years, he has allowed smoking inside his establishment. When Charleston County started looking into a ban, Richard set out two petitions at his bar — one for the ban, one against it. The petition in favor of the ban got 12 votes. The one against the ban got 601.
"We need to bust these goddamn czars ... that sit behind them desks, county council and the rest of these bastards, trying to overrule a small businessman. That shit ain't working," Ruth says. He spoke to County Council at the first and second readings of the smoke-free ordinance, but he didn't bother showing up to the third reading, which was more or less a done deal. Reporters from The Post and Courier and ABC News 4 have gone out to his bar to hear complaints about the ordinance, and now Ruth says he will seek an injunction against the county to stop the ban.
But in North Charleston, not every bar owner is dreading a smoke-free ordinance the same way Ruth did. At Madra Rua, a popular pub in the Park Circle neighborhood, there is currently a smoking and a nonsmoking section, but General Manager Jenny Lee Ford isn't riled up about the potential ban.
"Actually, we were thinking about making the whole restaurant nonsmoking anyway," Ford says. "We actually feel like it would increase our business." She has heard customers saying that their friends won't eat in the restaurant because they can smell the smoke in the non-smoking section, which is connected to the smoking section by an open walkway. Ford is looking into renovating the bar's back patio area to accommodate smokers outdoors. "I feel like we're actually losing a lot more lunch and dinner business than we are gaining late-night smoking business," Ford says.