Your intrepid scribe went on an undercover mission last week to investigate what is really going on with the smoking ban on Sullivan's Island.
Since June, when it became the first municipality in the state to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, the village by the sea has taken a beating from smokers — both in town and around the state — denouncing the ban as the work of Satan or Europeans or some such. In fact, there is a lawsuit pending against the town to have the ban overturned.
One of the litigants and leaders in that action is Bert's Bar, a Sullivan's Island institution for decades. Bert's owner, Tim Runyan, says that business has dropped off so sharply since the ban went into effect that he may have to close.
I was skeptical, because bar and restaurant owners have been making such claims all over the country, wherever smoking bans have been implemented. Yet no closings have been demonstrably attributed to smoking bans. Furthermore, the research suggests that putting smokers on the sidewalk actually improves bar and restaurant business by bringing out diners who had been sitting at home and eating take-out pizza all these years.
So which is it? Does Bert's really have its back against the wall, or was this just another business crying wolf? Inquiring minds want to know!
I journeyed to Sullivan's Island to drink a beer at Bert's and I gotta tell you, the place was dead! For the half-hour I was there, only two other customers were in the joint. No doubt some of that quiet and empty space was due to the hour — 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night in the middle of December. But Bert's is a hopping place — or at least it used to be.
Maybe the smoking ban has taken a toll on the bar. As Runyan has explained to the media, he has no place to put a patio or deck for smokers, as other Sullivan's Island bars do, and for the really hardcore smoker, Mt. Pleasant is only five minutes away. It's just too easy for smokers to skip off the island to enjoy their cigarettes with their drinks.
We can't do anything about the lack of space for Runyan to build his smoker's deck, but there is a simple solution to keep smokers from fleeing to Mt. Pleasant: make Mt. Pleasant smoke-free, too. In fact, let's make the whole county smoke-free. Mt. Pleasant Mayor Harry Hallman Jr. is in favor of a smoke-free county and he is far from alone.
But, of course, nothing is so simple in this Byzantine little state. Since Sullivan's Island went smoke-free, the City of Greenville has followed with its own anti-smoking ordinance. And the City of Columbia has passed a similar smoking ban, which is being held in abeyance until the Sullivan's Island case is decided in state circuit court.
Now a group of Greenville businesses has joined Bert's in their lawsuit, saying that local governments do not have the power under state law to control smoking. They argue that the state's Clean Indoor Air Act governs where people may and may not smoke and it says nothing about making bars and restaurants smoke-free. Ipso facto, their lawyers say, such municipal smoking bans are unconstitutional because they outlaw something which is legal under state law. State Attorney General Henry McMaster has offered the opinion that only the state legislature has the power to regulate smoking. Regardless what the circuit court decides, this case is going to the state Supreme Court and could take many months to settle.
But there is a quicker solution. When the General Assembly opens in January, it should fast-track legislation allowing local governments to write their own smoking laws. After all, two of the state's three largest cities — Columbia and Greenville — have already passed smoking bans and Charleston will probably join them soon. And Mount Pleasant appears ready to pass a smoking ban if it gets the go-ahead from the General Assembly. That would be good news for Bert's and anyone who breathes in Mount Pleasant.
But better than having municipalities and counties creating a patchwork of smoking ordinances, let's go for the touchdown. Let's join Georgia, Florida, and nearly a dozen other states and a half-dozen nations in creating a general smoke-free zone in all public buildings and places of public accommodation. Last April, the House of Representatives fell one vote short of passing a comprehensive, statewide smoking ban. Maybe 2007 will be the year we finally beat the tobacco lobby and make our workplaces safe from smokers.
Let's make a New Year's resolution now. We can do it. We should do it, if for no other reason than to save Bert's.