FAYETTEVILLE - In the case of Fayetteville, where there is no smoke, there is still fire.
On March 11, the city began enforcing its controversial new ordinance banning smoking in restaurants. According to Mayor Dan Coody, a supporter of the ordinance, "Most people are glad it's taken effect." That is probably true. Fifty-two percent of the voters approved the ordinance in a referendum. But the people who are not glad are very unglad, and eager to say so. They note that a general election is coming in November and that Mayor Coody, for one, will be on the ballot. They suggest that an adverse impact on business and city tax revenue could cause some people to rethink their positions. They say they're not dead yet, whatever the deleterious effects of smoking.
Outside George's Majestic Lounge, the oldest bar in Fayetteville, the marquee announces "Smoke here." Quite literally, a sign of the times.
Fayetteville is the first sizeable city in Arkansas to prohibit smoking in restaurants, and the second over-all. The nearby small town of Highfill (Benton County), home of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, was the first.
"Fayetteville has always been the city in Arkansas where if you're going to do something outside the box, this is where you do it," Mayor Coody says. It's a university town, and university towns tend to attract outside-the-boxers.
The Northwest Arkansas Tobacco Coalition was formed in 1996 by about 15 volunteers, according to Laurie Reh, who was one of them. Though the coalition had no money or staff, it was the first group in Northwest Arkansas to start a widespread education campaign on the dangers of smoking and the need for a smoke-free workplace, Reh said. In 2002, the Northwest Arkansas Coalition got funding from the state Health Department, as one of a number of anti-smoking programs across the state. A project co-ordinator was hired, Cambre Horne Brooks. By the next year, the coalition felt strong enough to push for an ordinance banning smoking in Fayetteville. City Council members were contacted for assistance. A separate group, Smoke-Free Fayetteville, was formed specifically to work for passage of the proposed ordinance. Reh was one of the spokespersons.
Alderman Don Marr was the first council member to sign on as a sponsor of the ordinance - later he acquired a co-sponsor - and was instrumental in its adoption. "It seemed worth doing because of the health impact," he says. The campaign for and against the ordinance was heated, both while the ordinance was before the council and again when the adopted ordinance was referred to a popular vote. Both sides did considerable advertising, especially Smoke-Free Fayetteville, which was getting assistance from other groups - the Health Department, the American Cancer Society, the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Arkansas.
"Everybody in town had an opportunity to weigh in," Marr says. "We had the highest turnout for a special election in the history of the city."
Despite the high feelings during the campaign, despite some threats to defy the ordinance, people are complying with it, Marr says. "The Fayetteville citizenry is a group that, when the people have decided an issue, abide by the law."
Mayor Coody says that since the ordinance took effect, "We've had many more positive comments than negative."
"I think a lot of other cities were watching this election," Coody says. "I think they're still watching to see how it turns out."
The mayor's office said last week that receipts from the city hotel, motel and restaurant tax for March were 19 percent greater than for March 2003. The anti-smoking ordinance went into effect March 11. So a trend of upward tax receipts continued. The receipts for February 2004 were 18.9 percent greater than for February 2003.
Richard Maynard teaches "English for academic purposes" - what most people would call "English as a second language" - at the University of Arkansas. Most of his students are foreigners. He was an early leader of the opposition to the proposed ordinance, calling on bars and restaurants to assure they were all aware of the threat. He found that many of them weren't. He's a smoker, but he says that's not the point.
"This was never about 'smokers' rights,' whatever that might be. Smokers' rights was never brought up by us. It was always the issue for the other side. They and the Northwest Arkansas Times were constantly trying to turn this into a thing about smoking.
"The process was the biggest thing I objected to. That we have government in our life doesn't mean we let them regulate everything we do." He understands banning smoking in many places, Maynard said, "But I thought bars and restaurants were different. That's entertainment. … For some people, the fight was about property rights and business rights, the right of an owner to decide for himself whether his restaurant will be smoke-free. For me, it was more about personal responsibility - taking responsibility for the decisions you make."
Smoking has become largely a working-class vice. Maynard finds it ironic and offensive that upper-class people who consider themselves progressive are so intent on depriving workers of their few pleasures, or, in the case of restaurant workers, their income.
"I'm not a right-wing Republican. I'm a fairly liberal Democrat. This is being called a progressive issue. It's not. I told the supporters of the ordinance, 'You keep saying you're for the workers, when you haven't talked to the workers.' I've been in the entertainment business. Most of them smoke. Some might prefer a smokeless environment, but they prefer making money more.' " Maynard said that bartending was his "survival job" while he was a struggling actor in New York for 12 years. He also tended bar at the former Fayetteville Hilton.
In sounding the alarm, Maynard called on a number of redneck bars, biker bars, the kind of places he doesn't frequent. "These are not health clubs. A guy at one of these honky-tonk bars west of town told me, 'These people have never given a damn about me in my life. Why are they so concerned about my health now?' "
Maynard says that if he hadn't gone around and talked to the stand-alone bars they too would have been included in the ban. (Marr said he would have preferred that bars be covered, but agreed to the exclusion to make the ordinance more palatable to opponents.)
Maynard is angry with Marr -"He doesn't understand working people at all" - and Coody, who he says had promised to bring people together as mayor. "He had the power to say, 'I'm not going to let this thing spring into civil war.' But he's such an anti-smoking zealot, he could hardly contain his contempt for us. And I'd been a part of his core campaign group. He's traded in a lot of his old friends for new friends." (Coody said, "We all have friends on both sides of this issue. In government, decisions should be based on what's best for the community.")
Robert Bova, a business consultant, was a sort of unofficial chairman of Free Choice Fayetteville, a loose-knit group that opposed the ordinance. He said that by allowing smoking in bars but not restaurants, the ordinance had artificially shifted business from one place to another. He complained that anti-smoking groups used slanted statistics, such as a claim that second-hand smoke killed 65,000 Americans a year. That figure is quoted in the ordinance, in fact. More recently, anti-smoking groups such as the Health Department have been using the figure 50,000 in their advertisements. That's still a lot of deaths, although Bova and Maynard say that this figure too is inflated, by attributing death to smoking even if smoking was only one of several factors.
Other communities will now be confronted with the same issues that Fayetteville has faced, Bova said, and Fayetteville may not be through confronting them itself. "Free Choice hasn't given up at all," he said. "We have an election year coming up. We're looking at options, looking at opportunities. We haven't rolled over and gone away."
In the Radisson Hotel restaurant and bar, the ashtrays are gone, the "No Smoking" signs are up. Down the street at the Hoffbrau, "Free Choice Fayetteville" stickers are still on the wall behind the bar, but when asked about the ordinance, a bartender says "We're a smoke-free restaurant now. No smoking up front." Later, her questioner wonders if the response suggests that employees are sneaking smokes in the kitchen.
On the morning after the election, after his side had lost, Rick Schweik, the owner of the Coolwater Village Cafe on College Avenue, was quoted in a newspaper as saying that he wouldn't enforce the smoking ban in his establishment. Mayor Coody says he talked to Schweik after that, and "He said he was going to comply. He was upset election night."
A party of three having dinner at the Coolwater finds no one smoking, and a hostess says that the ordinance is being obeyed.
But not happily. In a later, brief telephone interview, Schweik says he's lost business since the smoking stopped.
The Ozark Brewing Company, a brew pub and an anchor of Dickson Street for 10 years, closed May 9. The owner, John Gilliam, says the no-smoking ordinance was "the last straw." Other factors included a change in menu that was not well received, and a years-long shift in population from Washington County to its northern neighbor, Benton County. It's Benton County that has had the greatest growth in Northwest Arkansas, Benton County where the regional airport is located, Benton County where Wal-Mart is headquartered. Though the county is technically "dry," the bar and restaurant business is booming. People in Fayetteville say Benton County is the wettest dry county in Arkansas.
Kari Larson, owner of Common Grounds, a coffee house and bar on Dickson, says she's lost business late at night because of the smoking ban, but gained in lunchtime business. But, she said, she opened her patio as soon as the ordinance became effective, earlier than usual, and people can still smoke there. The real test of the ban's impact on her place will come next fall and winter, when the patio is closed, she said.
Katherine Donald is the executive director of the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Arkansas, headquartered in Little Rock, a parent organization for the local coalitions around the state. She says the coalition is privately funded, most of the funds coming from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation of Princeton, N.J., the nation's largest charitable organization devoted exclusively to health-care issues. (Maynard and Bova like to note that the foundation receives money from the Johnson & Johnson company, which sells anti-smoking patches among many other products.)
A number of Arkansas cities are considering ordinances like Fayetteville's, Donald says. Among them are North Little Rock, where there's been talk of putting an ordinance on the ballot in November, and Pine Bluff. Local coalitions are active in Jonesboro and Bryant, and a border coalition is working both sides of the state line in Texarkana. Heber Springs' city government voted on an ordinance in February. It didn't pass, but the sponsor is thinking about taking it to a public vote. Little Rock is not as far along, Donald said, but "We have an educational campaign going talking with city leaders about protecting the rights of workers. That's what it's all about."
"A great deal of what we do is grassroots education," Donald said. "People worry about an infringement of personal rights. Once we get people to recognize this is a health issue, we can overcome that."
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