Simpsonville split on plan to ban smoking in restaurants
March 14, 2012
By Paul Alongi | Staff Writer
Spiro Conits said that when he built his restaurant on Main Street in Simpsonville a decade ago, he included a smoking room with a $2,000 air filtration system so that smokers and non-smokers could eat without bothering each other.
If Simpsonville bans smoking in restaurants, Conits fears some of his customers will leave Carolina Fine Food and head for the city limits less than a mile away.
“There are a bunch of restaurants over there — and they smoke over there,” Conits said.
Simpsonville’s proposed ban on smoking in restaurants has divided the city over whether it is a public health issue vital to children’s well-being or an unnecessary government intrusion into private business.
The debate over its potential impact is just as divisive. While some worry about losing customers, others said many restaurants already prohibit smoking voluntarily and that the effect citywide would be minimal.
If the law passes, it would be a reversal from nearly two years ago when a similar measure in Simpsonville failed to garner a single vote, except for Julius Welborn, the councilman who has been pushing for a new smoking ordinance.
The city would join 41 other municipalities and five counties across the state that regulate smoking in the workplace, most laws covering bars or restaurants or both, according to the South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative.
Simpsonville’s ordinance would include bars inside restaurants and outdoor areas where food and drink is served. Violators could include smokers and business owners and managers who allow it.
They would face fines of $10 to $25 and the loss of business license or occupancy permit for repeated violations.
Private clubs and bars where eating is “incidental” to the consumption of alcohol would be exempt from the ban.
Welborn said he envisions Simpsonville enforcing the law the same way Greenville handles its smoking ban. Restaurant owners would be fined if a citizen’s complaint could be verified, he said.
There would be no “cigarette police,” Welborn said.
City Council gave preliminary approval to the proposal on a 4-3 vote and then set aside the measure at the next meeting to give the public a chance to comment.
Two doctors and an anti-smoking advocate supported it, while three citizens spoke against the measure.
Dr. Stefanie Putman, of Heritage Pediatrics and Internal Medicine, said that children exposed to second-hand smoke are at increased risk of respiratory infections, school absences, hearing loss, sinusitis, bronchitis and pneumonia.
Asthma sufferers, she said, can wind up on life support and sometimes don’t survive the episode.
“These are some extreme cases, but we do see this within Greenville Hospital System,” she said.
Marc St. Stephen, an opponent, said he sees the proposal as government meddling in private property and choices. He said he has counted more than 50 restaurants in Simpsonville and that eight allow smoking.
“Given that so very few places in Simpsonville actually allow smoking, this ordinance is unnecessary,” he said.
Simpsonville city officials have not done a count of their own or any formal study on the impact of a smoking ordinance, although council members have been talking to restaurant owners, said City Administrator Russell Hawes.
Officials have also looked at the impact similar measures have had in Greenville and other communities, he said.
“From what we’ve seen, the effect on business has been negligible,” Hawes said.
It would take one more affirmative vote for the proposal to become law, which could happen as soon as March 27.
Greenville County and Simpsonville’s neighboring cities have no laws prohibiting smoking in bars and restaurants, leaving the decision up to each business.
City administrators in Mauldin and Fountain Inn said they have no plans to aggressively recruit smokers if Simpsonville’s ban were to pass.
Welborn, an ophthalmologist, said he limited the proposal to restaurants because it was all fellow council members would accept. If the ordinance passes, it could be changed later, he said.
“If there were enough complaints, it could be applied to other places, like bars,” Welborn said.
The smoking section at Carolina Fine Food is tucked into the corner of an 11,000-square-foot building at 625 S.E. Main St. A few booths and the drink dispenser sit just outside the room, and the main dining area is on the other side of the building.
“There is no secondhand smoke coming outside of the room,” said Elias Conits, who co-owns the restaurant with his father. “It doesn’t affect any of the other customers.”
The debate has been more subdued than when Greenville passed its second-in-the-state smoking ban more than five years ago. A legal challenge after Greenville’s ordinance passed went to the state Supreme Court and was decided in favor of ban supporters.
Simpsonville Mayor Perry Eichor said that while his city’s proposed smoking ban is a “hot issue,” citizens were debating it without name-calling.
“It’s nice to see at the local level that we still have civility in our government,” he said.
But the politics haven’t shifted far enough to push any statewide smoking ban over the top. Three proposals in the state Legislature have been referred to committees, where they sit.
Twenty-three states have laws in effect requiring restaurants and bars to be smoke free, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.
Smoking may soon be banned in Simpsonville restaurants.
The City Council passed on first reading of an ordinance that would prohibit smoking in enclosed public places, such as restaurants, lobbies and elevators, and certain outdoor spaces, such as amphitheaters and ball parks.
Bars and private clubs would not be regulated.
Carolina Fine Foods owner Spiro Conits said he is not a smoker but allows smoking in his restaurant.
“When they want to smoke, they come over here, they eat and smoke,” Conits said.
The restaurant has allowed smoking for more than 10 years, he said. When he built the restaurant, he included a separate room for smokers, he said.
“You can come over here and eat with your family and you don’t even know anybody’s smoking out there because they have a different room,” he said.
Debbie French, a hostess at Coach House, said the restaurant went non-smoking a few years ago when it was remodeled.
French said many smoking customers said they wouldn’t return if the restaurant banned smoking.
“But you know what? They all came back,” she said.
French, a smoker, said she prefers non-smoking restaurants when she goes out to eat.
“I’m there to eat, not to smoke,” she said.
The Simpsonville Cracker Barrel went smoke-free on Feb. 16, said spokeswoman Jeanne Ludington. All Cracker Barrels that allowed smoking went smoke-free that day, Ludington said.
“We care about the health and well-being of our guests and our employees. A number of ordinances across the country all differ,” she said. “The majority of our restaurants and Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores have been non-smoking for different periods of time. It just made sense for consistency purposes to have the remaining ones who were still smoking go non-smoking.”
Councilman Julius Welborn said the smoking ordinance has been a pet project.
“My whole push has been to make smoking prohibited in restaurants that are perceived as family restaurants or have a children’s menu,” Welborn said. “Our children don’t have any choice as to where they go. I think that if Simpsonville is going to be a safe place to be we need to consider this.”
Welborn, Mayor Perry Eichor and council members Brown Garrett and Geneva Lawrence voted for the ordinance. Matthew Gooch, Sylvia Lockaby and George Curtis voted against it.
Garrett said he was a former smoker and he was on the fence with the ordinance.
“I don’t like the government telling me what to do and I don’t like kids being exposed to smoke,” he said.
Lawrence said she was the only smoker on council, but she doesn’t go to restaurants based on whether or not they allow smoking; she goes for good food.
The government exists for three reasons, Eichor said: public health, public safety and transportation. Smoking falls under both health and safety, he said.
“I think it’s appropriate for government to interject itself into this sort of activity,” he said. “I don’t like government sticking its nose in there, but to argue against a smoking ordinance, to me, is almost like arguing against the use of seat belts.”
Lockaby said the smoking issue will take care of itself.
“I’m against it because I don’t like government having their fingers in every single thing you do,” she said. “I think eventually it’s going to take care of itself. Cracker Barrel has already gone that way. Ruby Tuesday is non-smoking. I think just little by little people are changing over.”
The proposed ordinance covers some areas that are already non-smoking, such as libraries and ball parks, Lockaby said.
Councilman Matthew Gooch said the ordinance was at its first reading and he’d like to investigate further.
Gooch said this kind of restriction implies that government makes better decisions than people. People have the right to make certain choices, especially about a legal activity, he said.
The consumer votes with his dollar, Gooch said.
“My inclination is that people can and do make their own decisions. I vote with my dollar,” he said. “If I don’t want to be where you are because you’re smoking, I leave and I go somewhere else. I spend my dollars with people who don’t.”
Fight details and City Council contact information:
SC: Simpsonville preserves private property freedom. It was heartening to hear each and every other member, the five other council members and the mayor, each stand up for private property rights and shoot down Welborn’s idea. It was even more heartening to hear several council members slam Welborn for suggesting that council did not care about people’s health. Clearly, Wellborn was trying to read from the anti playbook and failed miserably. Ahh, if only all city and state government majorities felt this way.