SMOKE SIGNALS

For Weekly SurgeJanuary 8, 2014 

Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City for nearly a dozen years, was able to ban electronic cigarettes in bars, restaurants, office buildings and parks before leaving office last week. He was one of the first to ban tobacco smoking back in 2003 due to ample research regarding the dangers of secondhand smoke. His latest ban occurs due to the lack of research on the effects of the vapor emitted by electronic cigarettes – or vaping, as it’s known.

The social debate of these types of bans has been going on for years. It seems to be a very hot topic around the onset of the ban and slowly fades into a mild whimper after the prohibition takes effect. It is true that populations and policy change do not always see eye-to- eye. We tend to get comfortable doing what we have always done and don’t want our freedoms suppressed by pointy-headed policy-makers.

A far cry from the Big Apple, the Grand Strand is an area divided by the ban on tobacco smoking in public places. In 2008, the South Carolina Supreme Court put such bans in the hands of the local governments. This makes local lawmakers the end of the line for these policies. In our area, the smoking ban started in Surfside Beach and has caught on in Atlantic Beach and North Myrtle Beach.

And while not a municipality, one of the area’s most influential institutions – Coastal Carolina University – has enacted a tobacco ban, that also includes e-cigarettes, on the Conway campus that will take effect fall semester.

The city of Myrtle Beach, however, has been holding out on banning smoking altogether and is allowing each establishment to make its own policies regarding the issue - which has always been the case. Likewise, Horry County, which governs popular dining and nightlife destinations on Restaurant Row, Carolina Forest, Little River and Garden City Beach, isn’t getting into the business of playing stoagie police.

But how much longer can the central city of a major tourist destination continue to flourish under a cloud of smoke – or perhaps the smoky dive or grill is a particular draw for folks who can’t light up at the bar back home, say in New York, Ohio, or Pennsylvania?

What Is Right?

Lawmakers across the nation have debated the notion of rights, health, cleanliness and every other topic imaginable in the banning of cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking in public places. Most have latched onto the fact that secondhand smoke has been proven hazardous and non-smokers should be able to have a choice as to their health risks while in public venues.

Smokers have argued that it is their right to smoke, which most agree, and lawmakers are taking away the rights of smokers, which most disagree. Human rights are defined as “rights (as freedom from unlawful imprisonment, torture and execution) regarded as belonging fundamentally to all persons.” So, as it should be a right to smoke, so too should it be a right to not smoke.

The American Cancer Society identifies secondhand smoke as a “known human carcinogen.” Meaning, research supports the fact that breathing secondhand tobacco smoke can cause cancer. Whether you smoke or not, this is something to be aware of. Given the proven health risks of secondhand smoke inhalation, the legal rights for one room of patrons should provide for all parties involved.

Mark Kruea, the Public Information Officer for the City of Myrtle Beach, says that city council has not taken a position on banning smoking in restaurants or bars. He says that the city has maintained non-smoking policies in government buildings for some time. These bans also include exterior areas where many believe smoking to be acceptable.

Kruea believes that a statewide policy would make the most sense. North Carolina passed a statewide no-smoking law in 2010 with little to no opposition. “A piecemeal approach, where one jurisdiction has one set of rules and a neighboring jurisdiction has another, would tend to cause confusion, especially for a vacation destination like ours,” says Kruea about Myrtle Beach’s smoking future.

And you could argue that this laissez faire approach is working, as popular local nightclubs, such as Revolutions and Crocodile Rocks at Broadway at the Beach, adopted their own smoke-free policies withouth government edicts in 2013.

“It’s a bold move,” said the club’s owner and spokesperson, Craig Smith, via a press release issued when Revolutions unveiled its smoke-free plan in May. “But one that we think is in the best interest of our patrons.”

The Bottom Line

The food and beverage industry leads the way in the discussions around smoking bans. While the opinions are as diverse as the bars we visit, there are some facts that have not changed.

Drinking alcohol and smoking are closely associated. A study conducted on human volunteers at Duke University Medical Center has determined that drinking alcohol, even in moderate amounts, enhances the “pleasurable” effects of nicotine. The research could explain why you have friends that repeat the mantra: “only smoke when they drink.” It could also explain why smoking relapses occur most frequently in bar environments. The pleasure sensation is enhanced when nicotine and alcohol interact. The study used nicotine-free cigarettes to measure the outcome and found that, without nicotine, the pleasure factor was nearly non-existent.

As bans on cigarettes started filtering across the nation earlier this century, the concern was that they would sink our bar business and the social gathering spots would sit empty - crippling an important sector of the Grand Strand’s economy. The notion was that people did not want to drink in a place that you could not smoke. Ironically, at around the same time that these bans were becoming commonplace, the cocktail culture had a massive resurgence on a national level. While the mixology movement, for lack of a better term, can not be proven in relation to the smoke-free environments, the time frames are very similar.

In addition to the way that we imbibe, research conducted by the Yale School of Medicine claims that smoking bans have also reduced the volume of alcohol abuse. According to Sherry McKee, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and lead author of the study, “smokers are three times as likely to abuse alcohol or meet criteria for dependance.” McKee concludes that the study her team conducted confirms that separating drinking from smoking reduces alcohol abuse.

This leads us back into the realm of drinking well versus just drinking. It can be deduced that smokey bars are intoxicating in and of themselves. Alcohol embellished nicotine creates an environment where you are more likely to join in, as it were. As the environment shifted to a more oxygen-friendly place, so did the drinks. Everything from carving your own ice to taking five minutes to make one drink are all more frequent in the top cocktail establishments. Customers do not seem to mind.

As in any other business, being able to adjust to the times and make choices that allow you to continue to grow are essential. Our stretch of beach is no exception and, given the loose enforcement of smoking bans, some bars are thriving in the wake of new laws.

Mike Abel, General Manager at Liberty Taproom and Grill ( 7651 N. Kings Highway, Myrtle Beach) says that the popular watering hole and eatery banned smoking in March 2012 in order to be proactive about any government decisions. Since the policy change, Abel says more people are eating full meals on the spacious patio, which was once the smoking section, and the revenue from that portion of the restaurant has actually increased after smoking was removed from the building.

He points out that none of these policy changes by his company have received any push back from loyal guests, that he is aware of. Abel also notices that the volume of non-smokers in the patio area has increased since the policy took effect.

In a similar decision and back before talks of a ban even hit North Myrtle Beach, Sea Blue Wine Bar & Restaurant ( 503 U.S. 17 North) opted to be a no-smoking establishment. Owner and chef Ken Norcutt says that the room was just too small to separate the two populations. Norcutt also explained his concerns with lingering smoke that would taint the flavor in the food, leave unpleasant, and possibly harmful, residue on wine glasses that hang upside down and would lower the overall cleanliness of the restaurant. Sea Blue has a large, heated and covered patio area where smoking is permitted and that has always been fine for its guests.

Norcutt and Sea Blue has plenty of electronic cigarette users and his philosophy is that he will not ban vaping unless a law is made that forces the restaurant to do so. It seems to solve all of the initial issues that led Sea Blue to becoming a no-smoking restaurant.

Adam Shumaker, bar manager at Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar ( 1990 Oakheart Road) in Carolina Forest, says the popular sports-oriented tavern and restaurant plans to keep its smoking policy intact as long as the law allows. Taking measurable and, often, costly steps to make everyone happy, Buffalo Wild Wings has a covered and heated patio area that will allow smoking regardless of the local policy. Likewise, a ventilation system which generates more air flow and less lingering smoke in the bar area has been in place from Day 1. Shumaker does not expect any impact on its business should a ban go into effect for Horry County and it seems that his team is ready to tackle the regulations on either side of the vote.

The choice as it seems right now for Myrtle Beach and unincorporated areas of Horry County is more about which restaurant you frequent. If you want a non-smoking place, they are definitely out there, and the list seems to be growing.

Shut The Vape Door

Since the barring of vaping in NYC this month, we have another talking point in the banning of smoking in public. But vaping isn’t the same as smoking, proponents insist. Still, is the vape ban coming our way?

Vaping is a new industry on the Grand Strand when compared to tobacco. However, growing from a perceived fad during its onset about five years ago to a multi-billion dollar industry nationwide, vaping appears to be the future of smoking.

Julius Catoe, assistant manager at Va Va Vape ( 704-F Seaboard Street, Myrtle Beach), has countless stories of how vaping has helped former smokers either quit altogether or increase their breathing capabilities by omitting the level of tar and other toxins found in tobacco. Vaping is still on the rise because, according to Catoe, it is more pure and less offensive to those around you than cigarette smoking. No one can argue that point. He sees more of the benefit than the hazard and hopes that any government intervention will consider the numerous positives that come from vaping.

Josh Ellison, salesman at Va Va Vape, believes that regulation will precede the banning of electronic cigarettes in South Carolina. While he is probably right, the legal ball, so to speak, is already in motion.

Most laws that ban traditional smoking in public places do not mention e-cigarettes. Lawmakers say that it is implied. Such as the case with the airlines. You can bring them on the plane, but you can not use them. Recently, to clear up any confusion, these laws are being re-written to ban electronic cigarettes specifically. Incidentally, CCU’s new tobacco-free policy specifically mentions e-cigarettes. The working draft of the university’s tobacco-free campus policy states that it will apply to: “All forms of tobacco and smoke-related products, including but not limited to, cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, snuff, water pipes (hookahs), bidis, kreteks, smokeless tobacco, electronic cigarettes and other devices allowing for the ingestion, combustion, inhalation or other use of tobacco.”

But vaping isn’t “another use of tobacco” - in fact, it utilizes a flavored liquid instead of the infamous leaf, which may or may not contain levels of nicotine. We pointed this out to CCU’s communications department, but at press time, had not recieved a response.

Vaping enthusiasts argue that there is no harm in the vapor. While the opposition concludes that there is not enough research supporting that statement and that the vapor still has an odor.

Tobacco is an $80 billion per year business and, in 2013, electronic cigarettes hit the $2 billion mark. Some believe that electronic cigarette sales will surpass tobacco within the decade. These are strong numbers at play. The kind of dollars that tend to grab the attention of government agencies. Big tobacco companies have confirmed the legitimacy of vaping and are getting in on the electronic cigarette action. That alone has raised the ears of our lawmakers.

Currently, there is no regulation on electronic cigarettes. No age limit to purchase, no warnings on the label, no advertising restrictions and no excise taxation (only retail tax). Likewise, the Federal Drug Administration has not put any effort into studying the toxicity of the vapor. Given the attention this issue is getting and the money behind it, regulation seems to be unavoidable.

The University of California banned e-cigarettes from all campuses after conducting research that concluded that “many of the elements” in the vapor are known causes of respiratory distress as reported by the Wall Street Journal last November. Independent studies such as these foreshadow the fact that any FDA research will, more than likely, conclude some dangers in the vapor itself. This will bring on regulation and banning at a rapid rate.

Studies that link nicotine to alcohol, as mentioned earlier, will be ammunition to ban vaping in public as will any negative elements determined through research. Turning the vaping business from an anything goes, multi-billion dollar industry, into a controlled and taxed entity will change many of the attractive qualities of vaping. Price drives everything we do these days, so the cost will be the most obvious change.

As we push for more understanding as to why we allow or ban tobacco and e-cigarette smoking in our restaurants and bars, it seems the finger of blame is pointed up stream. The state government holds the reigns for Myrtle Beach and surrounding unincorporated areas. When given the choice, business owners are divided and neither see a positive nor a negative in the public reaction to their choice. The attention that electronic cigarettes will receive in 2014 could be just enough to push the state to, formally, choose a side. Thus, forcing everyone on the Grand Strand to follow the same standards. There is little doubt that tax dollars will be the backbone behind such a decision.

But for now - at many bar, pub, lounge, grill, tavern and restaurant destinations along the Grand Strand - it’s smoke (or vape) ‘em, if you got ‘em.

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