Charleston smoking ban still faces challenges in Columbia 

Outside Looking In

It's been more than six months since Charleston's bars and restaurants went smoke-free, and it doesn't appear that the world has turned upside down. Bars have been closing (Cumberland's), but they've also been opening (Moe's Downtown). On its face, the only recognizable difference is exactly what everyone expected — you can now see across your favorite bar. And the smokers have been dragged out to the street, with police reporting no smoking citations.

Bar owners are still peeved that they're being told how to run their business, but it's a mixed bag regarding whether business has actually been impacted. Smokers are faithfully heading outside to light up, and that's going to get a lot easier as the weather warms and "outside" becomes exactly where people want to be.

But the fight for smoking inside isn't over. The state Supreme Court continues to weigh a Greenville smoking ban that is expected to impact the near-dozen other smoking bans in the state. And, while the legislature is sitting this round out, they'll likely be prodded to action by one side or the other depending on where the court lands on the case.

Charleston's ordinance prohibits smoking in any business, except for the city's lone smoking bar and a small percentage of hotel rooms. City police are responsible for enforcing the ordinance, but spokesman Charles Francis says no citations have been issued since the ban took effect in late July. It's likely based on an overwhelming acceptance of the rules. Violators would face fines up to $1,087 and up to 30 days in jail. The ordinance does offer officers the option of issuing a warning.

David Clark, director of operations at Wild Wing Café, says the restaurant/bar is obeying the ban at its Market Street location, but that doesn't mean he has to like it. The chain has the space at other locations for outdoor seating or separate indoor seating to accommodate smoking and nonsmoking sections. But the limited space downtown meant smoking was allowed in the entire restaurant before the ban, and they didn't have any problems filling the booths.

"If enough people told us with their feet, we would have changed it," Clark says.

But the ban hasn't seemed to impact business either, other than leading to more noise and trash on the front steps. It has also required more monitoring of guests, Clark says, to make sure folks who head out the door for a smoke have paid their bill or that they're coming back.

The resilience of the business may be that the breadwinner is the food, not the bar.

While food slightly outweighs the bar at King Street Grille, owner Eric Frank says he's still seen a 20 percent drop in revenue. While some of it may be due to the changing economy, he also pins blame on lost traffic because of the smoking ban. Like Wild Wings, Frank doesn't have a patio to offer smoking patrons and, instead, has to push them out the front door.

"I have to ask guests to stand out in the pouring rain to smoke," he says. And that's only if they decide to hang around. "They could see a friend down the street and go to some other bar."

Fortunately for Frank, the book isn't closed on smoking indoors just yet.

State Challenges

In January, the state Supreme Court heard arguments on the Greenville ban. Expected later this year, the decision on that case should give municipalities and the legislature a clear picture of how the court sees local smoking ordinances.

Chief Justice Jean Toal asked Greenville's lawyers during questioning whether the city had the right to go further than state law on things like prohibition. Their response was that smoking bans don't contradict state law like a prohibition on alcohol would. Toal's question alone was enough to raise speculation that the court could side with bar owners.

"I would imagine the court asks tough questions of both sides," says Dan Carrigan of the Charleston-based Smoke-Free South Carolina, who has tried to do his own crystal ball gazing to determine where the court will land — with no clear answer. "I'm finding it's a fool's game."

With the decision likely to either reinforce the existing smoking bans or cast the entire lot into doubt, Carrigan says Smoke-Free is ready to take the fight in one of two directions. If the ban is upheld, they'll take the fight to new municipalities.

"There are a lot (of governing bodies) who are waiting right now on the Supreme Court before they proceed," he says.

If the ban is struck down, the group will head to Columbia to get the legislature to fix it. That job is going to be made difficult by the army of tobacco lobbyists who have settled roots in the halls of the Statehouse. Tobacco giant RJ Reynolds nearly tripled the money it was spending on lobbyists in 2006 and 2007, according to a recent Hilton Head Island Packet report.

"You have to wonder what they're getting for that money," Carrigan says.

There are bills already under committee review that would reinforce local bans or obliterate them, but the traction seems to be with compromise legislation that would prohibit smoking in restaurants, but provide an exception for bars.

Clark says that legislation may benefit bar owners in the state, but that his restaurant and others that shift their focus between the kitchen and the bar depending on the hour of the night, could still be forced to remain smoke free.

Meanwhile, Smoke-Free South Carolina continues to collect signatures for petitions in Charleston and elsewhere in support of local smoking bans.

"Once the public gets a taste of clean air, they never want to go back," Carrigan says.

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