The reasons Greensboro voters will go to the polls Feb. 26 to reconsider the city's smoking ordinance are as hard to grab hold of as the smoke from a cigarette.

Greensboro restaurants and retail stores haven't protested loudly since a mandatory ordinance took effect a year ago.Employment at the Lorillard Corp. cigarette plant hasn't dropped. Profits in the tobacco industry remain strong.

But emotions burn just as hot the second time around, and the community is still divided. In 1989, only 173 votes out of more than 29,000 cast settled the question.

The ordinance is a symbol for both sides. And the city is paying $40,000 to settle the same issues voters decided 15 months ago.

It's hard to put a price on what a smoking ordinance in Greensboro means to people who earn a living from tobacco. Or to people who want to eat dinner in a restaurant or buy groceries without breathing cigarette smoke.

In forcing a new referendum, a group composed largely of Lorillard workers wants a demonstration that city residents support the company, one of Greensboro's largest with 2,300 employees.

``Workers were disappointed in city residents,' said Alex Spears, executive vice president at Lorillard. ``They didn't understand why such an ordinance would be enacted by city voters. It's their livelihood.'

Members of a local non-smoking group want Greensboro to keep what they consider a mild ordinance and not surrender to pressure from the tobacco industry.

``I think that the current ordinance is very, very fair and reasonable,' said David Hudgins, spokesman for Greensboro Against Smoking Pollution. ``In some parts of the country, it would be considered a joke. The opposition has nothing to do with what's fair and what's reasonable.'

The restaurant and merchants' associations both wanted a voluntary ordinance in 1989, but say they haven't had many complaints with the mandatory rules.

``There don't seem to be any enforcement problems,' said Steve Branch of the Greensboro Merchants' Association.

``Since it has been mandatory, I think it was a rather smooth transition,' said Mary Lacklen, president of the Guilford County Restaurant Association.

Neither group is taking a position in this referendum.

``We feel that whatever the voters want is what we'll do,' Lacklen said. ``Our customers are smokers and non-smokers alike. We don't really want to be made a political pawn.'

The existing ordinance prohibits smoking in large retail stores and requires non-smoking sections in restaurants with more than 50 seats. Violators are subject to a $25 fine.

The proposed ordinance would remove the fine. It would ``encourage' smokers not to light up in non-smoking areas, but it wouldn't stop them from doing it.

There's disagreement about what would happen if the city's ordinance were voluntary.

Supporters of the petition that led to the new referendum say the change in Greensboro would be largely symbolic, that restaurants wouldn't abolish non-smoking sections if given the right to do so.

``I don't believe there's going to be an impact other than smokers will not be subject to fines and be kind of a second-class citizen,' Spears said.

Hudgins said that's utopian. He cites Charlotte, where a voluntary ordinance has received 19 percent compliance.

``I'd like to think we have a perfect society, but we don't,' he said. ``That's why we have laws. What about the guy who's not responsible? Doesn't the rest of society deserve some protection from those people?'

There's also debate about the election's importance as a symbol locally and nationally.

In 1989, Greensboro's ordinance stood out like a beacon. While smoking restrictions took effect in one North Carolina city, Winston-Salem and others were adopting resolutions in praise of tobacco the moneymaker.

Fifteen months later, Raleigh, Wilmington and New Hanover County in North Carolina all have smoking ordinances, as does the state of Virginia, home of tobacco giant Philip Morris USA.

Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute in Washington, the industry's major lobbying group, said other places don't cite Greensboro when they consider smoking ordinances.

``People in other areas do not act on their own because people in Greensboro did,' he said.

``It has not induced a discernible ripple impact in other places.'

But Hudgins said the industry is fighting back in Greensboro because officials want to reverse a loss on the home front.

``They know they're losing all over the country,' he said.

``If they can win right here in their own back yard, they can foster their belief in their own invulnerability.'

R.J. Reynolds, the huge tobacco company based in Winston-Salem, tracks ordinances throughout the country, spokeswoman Maura Payne said.

``Maybe we do watch the North Carolina cities with a little greater level of interest because other people do,' she said.

Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a group based in Berkeley, Calif., also is following the vote.

``We're certainly following it, but ordinances are passing with some regularity even in tobacco states,' executive director Mark Pertschuk said. ``It's mostly interesting to see how desperate the tobacco industry is.'

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------\ SAMPLE BALLOT

February 26, 1991\ County of Guilford\ North Carolina \

Special Referendum

On the adoption of an ordinance providing for voluntary designation of smoking and nonsmoking areas in retail stores and restaurants open to the public in lieu of existing mandatory requirements and repealing civil penalties for those who smoke in such nonsmoking areas.

Sec. 10-6.1 Voluntary Designation of Smoking and Nonsmoking Areas in Certain Public Places.

(a) Retail Stores - The owner or manager of a retail store designed and arranged to accommodate more than 200 persons or in which 25 persons are regularly employed should voluntarily provide for no smoking in all areas open to the public, placing particular emphasis on check out areas. This subparagraph shall not apply to smoking rooms, restrooms, restaurants, executive offices or beauty parlors in retail stores.

(b) Restaurants - The owner or manager of every restaurant, whether currently in existance or to be established in the future with an indoor seating capacity of 100 or more seats, should voluntarily designate a nonsmoking area consisting of at least 25% of the indoor seating capacity of the restaurant. In nonsmoking areas existing physical barriers and ventilation systems should be used to the greatest extent possible to minimize the smoke in adjacent nonsmoking areas. Provided, this subparagraph shall not apply to bars and cocktail lounges; nor shall the seating capacity of any bar or lounge within a restaurant be included in the calculation of the total seating capacity of the restaurant nor rooms used for private functions or banquets.

(c) All persons who smoke are encouraged to refrain from smoking in areas designated as nonsmoking.\ Section 2. That subsections (4) and (5) of subsection (a) of Section 10-6 are hereby repealed.\ Section 3. All ordinances in conflict with the provisions of this ordinance are hereby repealed to the extent of such conflict.

FOR THE ORDINANCE \ AGAINST THE ORDINANCE

_____________________________________________________________________________\ THE DIFFERENCE between Greensboro's existing ordinance and the proposal on the ballot is basically enforceability. The existing ordinance carries a $25 fine for business owners and smokers who disobey it. The proposed ordinance has no enforcement or fines.

Voters will have two choices:

If you want to replace the existing ordinance with the voluntary proposal, vote ``yes' - the smokers' rights side.

If you want to keep the city's existing ordinance, vote ``no' - the non-smokers' rights side.

Load comments