Pitt County ruling clouds ban on smoking in bars

Blue-collar bars are considered clubs, so light-ups allowed

Staff WriterJanuary 14, 2011 

— The after-work scene at Live unfolds just as it does all over North Carolina: The bar fills with elbows and beer bottles, ESPN glows silently on the flat-screens, and chit-chat and Def Leppard punctuate the aural atmosphere.

The smoke, though, brings a hazy twist.

A year after North Carolina banned smoking in bars and restaurants, nicotine users have discovered a legal oasis in Pitt County. A ruling from a District Court judge allows smoking in four Greenville bars that operate as private clubs. These are the only for-profit bars in the state where indoor smoking is legal.

For the N.C. Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch, the court's decision means workers would be subjected to the dangers of tobacco.

"Secondhand smoke is really a serious health risk," said Sally Herndon, who heads the branch, a part of the division of public health. "People shouldn't have to risk their health to work in North Carolina."

Regulars see it differently. If people want to smoke in a private club, they should have that right. Each of the four bars is a private club, with membership lists and fees. Some say the return of cigarettes means the return of true bar culture.

"Rambunctious language, cussing and a cigarette, they all go hand in hand," said customer Steve Everette, enjoying a beer and a cigarette at Live on a recent evening.

The complaint filed in Pitt County District Court by a group of bar owners argued that North Carolina's smoking ban unfairly exempted nonprofit private clubs. The complaint was against the director of the Pitt County Health Department, the local enforcer of the state anti-smoking law.

The law allows smoking in nonprofit country clubs and in nonprofit bars run by member-operated organizations such as the VFW or Moose Lodge. The law specifically included country clubs in the definition of private club.

The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission defines private clubs differently. In North Carolina, in order to serve liquor without food, a bar must be a private club. All four of the Greenville bars where smoking is allowed - Live, Mac Billiards, Club 519 and 5th Street Distillery - are private clubs under the ABC guidelines.

George Beaman, who owns the billiards hall and runs Club 519 and 5th Street with a partner, said the law unfairly targeted blue-collar drinkers who smoke.

"How many people can afford to join a private country club just to be able to smoke?" Beaman said. "Some people can't afford two beers and a cigarette."

The Pitt County judge's ruling said that the exemption for country clubs in the smoking ban was an arbitrary one and did not further the law's goal of reducing secondhand smoke exposure. In his written order, Judge G. Galen Braddy found that country clubs and the four bars named in the complaint were the same type of private clubs.

A judge in a similar case in Guilford County ruled against the bar owner. So in those four Greenville bars, and in only those bars, customers are legally allowed to smoke.

Other bar owners in Pitt County have since complained to the county health department that having smoking in a few bars but not others has affected their business. Some smokers have moved to places where they don't have to go outside to have a cigarette. The judge's decision created a discrepancy among private clubs, said Dr. John Morrow, the county health director.

"If everyone had complied with the law, there wouldn't have been an unlevel playing field," Morrow said. "It doesn't hurt their business if everyone is following the same law."

One bar flouts law

One Pitt County club owner not involved with the complaint has decided to allow smoking in the wake of the judge's ruling, Morrow said. The bar has so far racked up about $15,000 in $200-per-day fines.

After the Pitt County department lost in court, county commissioners decided not to pay further attorneys' fees, so the health department will appeal Braddy's ruling with a pro bono attorney.

State Attorney General Roy Cooper's stance on the fate of the smoking law in Pitt County is unclear. In an e-mail, a spokeswoman said his office would not comment.

Standing outside the Pirate's Den, a bar and restaurant in downtown Greenville, Anthony Cutler enjoyed a cigarette on a recent winter night.

"I don't mind going outside," said Cutler, who will sometimes go to Live because he knows he can smoke there. "But it should be a choice."

Not all Greenville bar owners are complaining. Rob Oliver, owner of Rehab Lounge, said his customers, primarily college students, like hanging out in a smoke-free environment.

"Overall, it hasn't really hurt business," Oliver said. "If anything, the nonsmokers enjoy being here more."

Banning smoking has meant fewer chores around the club, too. There are no ashtrays to clean or cigarette burns on floors or furniture. But Oliver believes the Greenville bar owners' court fight has cracked open a door that may allow bar patrons to smoke again.

"They set a precedent for getting it done elsewhere."

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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