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Group seeks smoke-free bars, eateries in Little Rock

by Emma Pettit | November 13, 2017 at 1:00 a.m.

During evening drinks inside The Hillcrest Fountain in Little Rock, two tendrils of smoke fed the atmosphere above Cynthia Johnson’s head.

Flanked by two friends, both of whom toked cigarettes, Johnson explained why she paid their habit no mind.

“There is a definition of a dive bar,” she said Tuesday. “And smoking is in that definition.”

Her friends clarified that the Fountain isn’t a dive, exactly. More of an oasis, a neighborhood watering hole.

The next night, that watering hole went smoke-free for a night to host the launch of a campaign to ban smoking in Little Rock restaurants and bars.

Smoke Free Little Rock — a collection of health professionals and community activists — is petitioning the city’s Board of Directors to pass a comprehensive smoke-free ordinance. It would eliminate exemptions allowed under the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act of 2006.

The state law, championed by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, banned smoking in a most enclosed spaces including auditoriums, bathrooms, hospitals and cafeterias.

But licensed bars and restaurants could apply for an exemption if the owner agreed to never let anyone under 21 enter or work at the establishment. Those places also must post signs alerting people that smoking is allowed.

An exact number of businesses holding such an exemption was unavailable, state Department of Health spokesman Meg Mirivel said.

In 2008, the most recent year available, about 450 entities applied for exemptions, including around 40 in Little Rock, though not all of those were restaurants or bars, Mirivel said.

A short list of Arkansas towns — Fairfield Bay, Helena-West Helena and Wooster — have outlawed smoking in both restaurants and bars.

Though concerns over indoor smoking have churned in Little Rock since before the 2006 state law was passed, city officials have never nullified its exemptions. A handful of smoking havens still stand.

A smokeless indoor environment would finally give waiters, cooks and bartenders a safe workplace, supporters of the ban have long argued. Patrons could still smoke outside.

But some Little Rock bar owners said a new rule would sink sales. They also argued that workers and patrons are adults who have the freedom to choose the businesses they frequent.

1 IN 4 ARKANSANS

Just shy of 1 in 4 adult Arkansans are smokers, meaning they smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetimes and currently smoke every or some days, according to 2016 data from the United Health Foundation.

Smoking’s dire and deadly outcomes are well documented. In Arkansas, 5,800 deaths were attributed to smoking in 2014, the year cited by the state Health Department. That year, smoking was said to cost the state $1.22 billion in medical costs.

Secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in Arkansas, with about 575 people dying each year, according to the department.

Those statistics were well-known by the people who milled about the Fountain on Wednesday for the Smoke Free Little Rock event.

“No one should have to go to work and risk their health for a paycheck,” said Matt Henry, a community policy manager with the American Heart Association, one of the groups involved in proposing a smoke-free ordinance.

For bars and restaurants concerned about a possible dip in revenue, Henry pointed to other Southern cities.

Dallas enacted an indoor smoking ban. So did Austin, St. Louis, and even bar and booze bastion New Orleans.

“This type of law doesn’t have that negative impact on business that people think,” Henry said.

The group chose the Fountain as the campaign kickoff location “to show that a business can prosper when it goes smoke-free,” he said.

The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce does not have a position on the proposed smoking law, Jay Chesshir, the chief operating officer, said in an email.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola told the Fountain crowd that he personally went smoke-free 24 years ago.

A smoking ban could improve restaurant and bar atmosphere, “not only for the patrons but for the workers,” he said in an interview.

Stodola said he understands “the importance of individual rights,” but the potential embargo on smoking indoors is a health issue.

Ana Bica said she showed up Wednesday because she first inhaled a cigarette as a teen in Brazil and discovered she’s asthmatic. Even smoky clothes bug her, let alone smoke-infused bars, Bica said.

BUSINESS OPPOSITION

Not everyone in Little Rock is excited about the possibility of a smoking ban, though.

Maggie Hinson, longtime owner of Midtown Billiards, said she has waged war against such laws before.

A similar ordinance went before the city Board of Directors in 2005, after a task force was created by then-Mayor Jim Dailey. That same year, the Arkansas Legislature considered a bill that would have banned smoking in certain restaurants.

Both efforts failed, as did a 2009 Little Rock-based campaign founded on the same idea.

Hinson said that if history doesn’t repeat itself and a smoking ordinance is passed, her business would be sliced in half.

Rand Brewer, who owns Markham Street Grill and Pub in west Little Rock, also said a ban would “severely” affect his business. More than half of his clientele are smokers, he said.

Hinson described her narrow bar squeezed in the South Main neighborhood as a place that attracts “late night people.”

“I can’t see them going [outside] when it’s cold or rainy. They’ll just smoke in there,” Hinson said. “I’ll just have to pay the fines.”

It’s unclear, at this point, if the proposed ordinance would include specific fines for violations. Businesses can be fined various amounts for violating the Little Rock city code.

From behind the bar at Midtown, nonsmoker Jason Snow shook his head at the idea that he’s being subjected to health risks he didn’t sign up for.

“There’s a hundred other bars I could go to where I don’t have to be around smoke,” Snow added.

Avoiding it is akin to being “a stunt driver afraid to get injured,” he said. He chooses to work at Midtown because the money is good.

Plus, “it’s got its own vibe,” Snow said, shuffling around beer bottles under a sign that reads, “Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women.”

The downtown 610 Center Bar & Grill hosts a nonsmoking brunch that ends at 2 p.m., and smoking guests “are ready for the ashtrays at 1:59 p.m.,” said Corey Tullier, who owns Lagniappe, the restaurant side of the business.

If a smoking ban is passed, the business plans to operate an outdoor smoking area, Tullier said in an email.

At least one popular Little Rock bar took steps to go smoke-free on its own.

The White Water Tavern on West Seventh Street banned smoking in 2010 because it was “obviously an insanely unhealthy environment,” co-owner Matt White said in an email.

“Some of us felt sick all of the time,” White said. And it hampered live music. He once saw someone attend a show wearing a gas mask.

White said he was concerned about a drop in business if the bar went smoke-free, and the decision did lead to the loss of some regulars and close friends.

“But overall the response has been wildly positive, and I cannot fathom ever going back,” White said. Folks can see a show “and not take the bar home with them,” he said.

The Smoke Free Little Rock campaign is drumming up virtual support. More than 300 people had texted a designated phone number in favor of the ban by late last week.

About 2,000 people had signed petitions and 2,000 emails had been sent, though it’s likely those numbers include some crossover, Henry said over text message.

Chairman of Smoke Free Little Rock, Jennifer Knight, told the Fountain crowd of her resolve to get this done.

“We’re not completely smoke free? That’s got to change,” Knight said.

The night before the Smoke Free Little Rock event, casual smoker Connor Bliss sipped a beer at the Fountain with a friend. An open pack of cigarettes lay between them.

An indoor smoking ban would affect the habitual smoker much more than himself, Bliss said. Still, he’d be sad to see smoking wiped out everywhere.

“I would like to have at least one place,” Bliss said.

“I mean that literally. Just one place.”

A short list of Arkansas towns — Fairfield Bay, Helena-West Helena and Wooster — have outlawed smoking in both restaurants and bars.

Print Headline: Group seeks smoke-free bars, eateries in Little Rock

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