The state legislature is taking another stab at banning smoking in public places, including restaurants and bars.
But some business owners aren't waiting to see whether the bill will pass to convert their establishments into smoke-free venues.
Some see it as the right thing to do. Others believe it could draw customers.
But when fewer people are dining out, making any decision that could alienate customers is risky.
"I was actually waiting for the bill to be passed, because then it wouldn't be in my hands," said Tina Bolick, who turned her Skylines Cafe in Clayton smoke-free a week ago. "But in today's economy, people are really choosy with where they spend their money, and I don't want to not be on that list because of smoke."
Bolick was prompted to go smoke-free as complaints about smoke at her 2-year-old restaurant increased.
"One day a couple sent me an e-mail," she said. "The lady said, 'We really love your restaurant, but we don't love the smoking.' Right after that, we lost about 10 customers due to smoke."
After deciding to go smoke-free, Bolick sent an e-mail to her mailing list of 1,400 customers announcing the change.
She got 89 replies back. Only one was negative.
"It was just an overwhelming response overall," she said. "I would have never guessed it would be 88-1."
More restaurant owners may follow Bolick's lead, even if the bill being debated in the legislature never becomes law.
Gianni Cinelli said he and his brothers have now made all of their restaurants smoke-free. The family owns and operates about a dozen restaurants, including Gianni & Gaitano's, Cinelli's and Rocco's.
The smoke-free atmosphere appeals especially to couples, he said.
"In the end, I think I came out better," Cinelli said. "It seems the adults are going out more than the families."
If the bill does pass, it would ban smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants.
Business owners who break the law would be warned and fined $200 for their third violation.
Already 26 states have similar laws banning smoking in restaurants. Twenty-one ban smoking in bars. Of those, New York may have been one of the most contentious battles. But even there, the change has been positive, said Cinelli, whose family also owns and operates a restaurant there.
"When it happened, it hurt all the bars and restaurants for a while," he said. "But if you go out there now, they're all packed."
Despite success in other states, with North Carolina's tobacco-rich history, such a ban has been a harder sale here.
Similar bills in 2005 and 2007 failed.
This time the nonsmoking movement is gaining momentum, but the opposition is still vocal.
Tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds is pushing for an exemption for adult-oriented businesses such as bars and nightclubs. And the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association says claims about the effects of second-hand smoke are overblown.
Especially for owners of bars, which tend to draw more smokers, the ramifications of a blanket ban could be great.
"I know when they [banned smoking in] some other places, that some places have gone under," said Charles Miller, whose restaurant group owns seven local draft houses, including the Village Draft House and the MacGregor Draft House.
Miller said he's particularly worried that the legislature will pass a lesser version of the bill that allows smoking in private clubs and members-only facilities.
"If they're going to do it, I think it should be across the board, whether you're private or public," he said. "That's the only way I see it being fair."
While some restaurant and bar owners wait, a growing number are making the change. Chains like KFC and Pizza Hut are smoke-free across the board.
Others operate on a case-by-case basis.
The Maggiano's Little Italy restaurant in Durham went smoke-free Feb. 1.
Suzanne Keen, spokeswoman for Maggiano's parent company, Brinker International, said customer feedback as well as state and local laws played the biggest roles in the decision.
"We just take it market by market," she said. It's unique in every city where we operate. ... [In North Carolina], we know there's a smoking ordinance up for vote, and we want to be proactive."
'Pretty lax' system
Though more restaurants are changing their policies on their own, a state law that carries monetary consequences would be best, said Ann Staples, director of public education and communication for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch.
"Right now it's a voluntary program, and that means it's treated that way," she said. "It can be pretty lax. There's no teeth in it. And a new owner or a new manager or a lot of complaints from a particular regular who's a smoker can result in changes."
Some business owners are looking to the state to take the lead, afraid of angering smokers if they make the change voluntarily.
Richard DeMartino, who owns and operates the North Ridge Pub, Cafe Tiramisu and the Cameron Bar & Grill with his brother, said they changed Cafe Tiramisu to nonsmoking last month but will not convert the other two because they are primarily bars that attract smokers.
"Let's say Cameron Bar & Grill we did nonsmoking," he said. "To smoke, people would just go to another location. ... I think if everybody does it, if there's a law, I think that it won't hurt business. Then there's no choice."
Advocates for the bill are hopeful that it will pass this time.
Since it began in 2003, the N.C. Health and Wellness Trust Fund has worked with nearly 500 restaurants to institute smoke-free policies. It also has convinced an additional 300 establishments such as bowling alleys to go smoke-free.
"I feel that right now, we have sort of that groundswell," said fund executive director Vandana Shah. "There are some you can never bring around. For many there, is the whole historical attachment. ... The best way to describe it is I think it's been a very incremental process. It has the best shot it ever has."
The N.C. Department of Health & Human Services keeps a list of smoke-free restaurants by county at www.stepupnc.com (click on "NC Smoke-free dining guide" near the bottom of the page).
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