Fayetteville Council considers revoking exemption for bars
By Richard Davis
TFW Staff Writer
It may be the final nail in the coffin for coffin nails … at least for indoor settings.
Here’s essentially how the Fayetteville smoking ordinance works: It bans smoking inside any place of employment. Bank? No smoking. Grocery store? No smoking. Widget factory? No smoking. However, bars and retail tobacco outlets aren’t defined as workplaces for that ordinance.
What the Fayetteville City Council discussed Tuesday (May 3) is tweaking that definition to include bars as workplaces, ending the last big exemption in the ordinance. Stores that sell only tobacco would still be exempt because … well, what’s the point?
Council members Adella Gray and Matthew Petty co-sponsored the measure to close the bar loophole. Gray spoke passionately about the deaths of her parents — her father due to smoking Lucky Strikes and her mother due to exposure to his secondhand smoke. She specifically asked the council to take the proposal through all three readings before voting to give ample time for consideration and to hear public comments.
Petty said the thing he’s struggled the most with is feedback from people who say ending smoking in bars in an attempt to legislate morality since patrons are all consenting adults. He said he believes people do have a right to do harm to themselves, but he said the dangers of cigarette smoke to others — nonsmoking bartenders, wait staff, patrons, etc. — are so pervasive that legislation is required for the public health.
Overwhelmingly, public comments at the council meeting were in favor of taking bars nonsmoking. Council members heard from medical professionals, the deputy director of the state health department, members of the Northwest Arkansas Tobacco Free Coalition, University of Arkansas students, a spokeswoman from the America Heart Association, Fayetteville residents and even a recent graduate who said she was a former homecoming queen and Porkchop mascot, all who were in favor of expanding the smoking ordinance. Justin Phelps, who described himself as a UA graduate student and a Dickson Street bartender, said the bar he works at allows smoking currently, but he tries to spend most of his time there outside and supports ending smoking inside bars.
“People around the state do look at you guys as a visionary, and they also respect your opinion,” Phelps said. “You guys need to lead the way and do this and hopefully the rest of the state will follow.”
By contrast, if there is any organized opposition to the proposal, it hasn’t been apparent in the time leading up to the proposed ban, and the number of people who spoke against expanding the ordinance Tuesday night could be counted on one hand. [Update: An opposition Facebook group has been formed. "Free Choice in Fayetteville Bars"]
“I wasn’t going to say anything, but there’s so many people worried about my health I think I should,” Matt Marshall, a bartender said. “I chose this job. Most of the patrons that come to the bar I work at do smoke. I think that our rights should be protected to decide where we go on our own.”
The highlight of the evening was Sarah Varga, one of the owners of two bars on Dickson Street: Ryleigh’s, which allows smoking, and Sideways, which is voluntarily nonsmoking. Varga said she’s been on the fence over the issue, saying she knows some people enjoy having a cigarette with their beer, but opened Sideways as smoke free because of a high demand for that environment.
“I myself do enjoy to smoke when I drink but love the option that I can go to the other bar or any of the other few bars on the street that I can enjoy a smoke-free night as well,” Varga said. “And that is the biggest issue with me and that is choice.”
Varga said she’s concerned about the financial impact so soon after taking an economic hit following the implementation of pay parking on Dickson Street.
“I guess what I’m asking overall is I’d like to wait, just to let things calm down. Set this aside for a bit so we as bar owners can figure out what to do when this passes. I say when because I do believe that is what probably will happen in the future whether it’s statewide or something else.”
Varga said she enjoys smoking when she drinks but loves the option that she can go
On its Facebook page this morning, Crown Pub, which went smokeless voluntarily and is currently searching for a new home to move into, voiced opposition to expanding the ordinance:
“The Crown Pub (voluntarily non-smoking) does not support the proposed smoking ban. While we acknowledge the obvious health hazards of smoking, we feel strongly that as long as tobacco is legal to purchase and consume, the adult owners, staff and patrons of strictly 21 & over bars should be capable of making this decision for themselves.”
Fayetteville City Council: May 5
As co-sponsors of the proposal, Gray and Petty are unlikely to vote against extending the ban. Based on comments she made regarding public health and workers’ safety at the meeting, I think council member Sarah Lewis seems a possible yes vote, though she hasn’t specifically indicated that.
Brenda Thiel voted in favor of the original smoking ordinance but hasn’t weighed in yet on the expansion. Mayor Lioneld Jordan also voted for the original ordinance as an alderman, so seems likely as a yes vote should the issue come to a tie. [Update: Duh-hoy, there’s no possibility of a tie in this case. It will require 6 out of 8 votes to amend the ordinance).
No council member has specifically said they would oppose the ordinance, but based on his questioning Tuesday night, I believe Bobby Ferrell could be a potential no vote. Ferrell asked bartender Phelps if he chose to work at a bar.
Mark Kinion made a point at the meeting to declare he is undecided on the issue. Kinion said he sees validation on both sides. He said he sees the ills in secondhand smoke but is weighing that against the ability for residents to have a choice.
Council members Rhonda Adams and Justin Tennant asked some questions at the meeting Tuesday, but neither gave an indication of their position as yet.