DURHAM, N.C. —In dozens of states, Gary Richards wouldn't have been able to light up a Marlboro before tucking into his pizza, as he did at Satisfaction Restaurant & Bar this week. But in North Carolina, the nation's leading tobacco producer, limits on indoor smoking have lagged behind those in much of the country.
That changes today, when smoking in restaurants and bars is banned in the state that is home to two major tobacco companies and where the golden leaf helped build Duke and Wake Forest universities.
"There's smokers and there's nonsmokers. We've gotten along in the past," Richards, 52, said this week during a pre-meal smoke at the restaurant inside a former tobacco warehouse. "Why can't I come in here and have my beer and a couple of slices of pizza and a cigarette?"
The dangers of secondhand smoke to employee health and complaints from patrons about the smell finally won out when the Legislature approved the ban in 2009 after years of failures.
"This law doesn't tell anybody they shouldn't smoke," said state Rep. Hugh Holliman, a lung cancer survivor whose sister died of lung cancer. He led the charge for the legislation. "It's saying nonsmokers should have the same right to breathe clean air."
North Carolina is a relative latecomer to tobacco prohibitions in public places. North Carolina is at least the 29th state to ban smoking in restaurants and 24th for bars, according to the American Lung Association.
The new prohibitions represent a dramatic turn for a state that produces nearly half of the nation's tobacco.
The headquarters for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Inc. remain in North Carolina, where colonists began growing tobacco in the 1600s. The leaf became the top cash crop by far for eastern North Carolina farmers.