In January, Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous restaurant downtown became a smoke-free establishment. As owner John Vergos recalls, "We'd be very busy, and we'd see people with small children who had to decide to wait 30 minutes for a nonsmoking table or choose an [available] smoking table. We didn't think it was fair to make them have to choose."
This move indicates a greater trend toward protecting the health of nonsmokers. Last year, all Tennessee state buildings became smoke-free. This year, Governor Phil Bredesen introduced a bill into the legislature, the Tennessee Smoke-Free Air Law (HB 2336 and S 2255). The bill would prohibit smoking in all workplaces, including restaurants and bars, and would make it illegal to smoke within 25 feet of entrances and windows of smoke-free establishments. Under the bill, smoking in a nonsmoking area would be punishable by fines both to individuals and noncompliant business owners.
It's about time. Tennessee is one of the few states that received a settlement from the mammoth tobacco-industry lawsuit. The payments began in 1999 at around $140 million, at least $32 million of which was to be secured for developing effective, comprehensive tobacco prevention programs. Since the settlement, Tennessee has allotted exactly zero dollars to tobacco-control programs. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Tennessee generates $265 million annually from tobacco settlement payments and tobacco taxes, which increased in 2002. Annual smoking-related health-care costs in the state exceed $2 billion and continue to climb.
Twenty-eight states currently have smoke-free-workplace laws. Regional states that have beaten Tennessee to the punch include Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Missouri. Smoking legislation accelerated after the surgeon general's report last year cited scientific evidence of the role of secondhand smoke in causing disease and death in nonsmoking adults and children. The lengthy hazard list includes lung cancer, heart disease, respiratory infections, and SIDS.
"Workers have more than a casual exposure," adds Joe Weinberg, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. "You can show that in a couple of years [of working in a smoking environment] there is already a decreased lung capacity."
Robert Gowan, senior policy adviser to the governor, explained the impetus for this legislation developed in response to smoke-related health-care costs and the move by neighboring states to take action.
"It looked like there was a different mood on the subject," Gowan says. "We learned about the surgeon general's report last summer, then I saw an article [that] compared how little money Tennessee receives from tobacco versus the cost of smoking. It put things into perspective."
More than $2 billion is spent annually in Tennessee for smoke-related illnesses, whereas tobacco crops only brought in $93 million, reports statistics from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDOA). "States that have [passed legislation] see a significant drop in the number of smokers and decreased health-care costs," Gowan says.
Long into the smoke-free Tennessee movement is the nonprofit organization CHART (Coalition for a Healthy and Responsible Tennessee), which formed after the tobacco settlement to create tobacco prevention programs. Executive director Shelby Logsdon credits the sway in political support to a shift in public sentiment.
"No one should have to risk their health in order to earn a paycheck or enjoy a night out," says Logsdon. "Legislators are receiving more and more feedback that people want this law."
In fact, an October 2006 survey conducted by the American Cancer Society indicated more than 73 percent of Tennessee voters would support a law that makes all workplaces smoke-free. Yet the record in Tennessee shows a consistent defeat of tobacco legislation. What's different this time?
The strategy is focusing the campaign on employee rights and children's health. Supporters also note the growing concern business owners have over worker's comp liability for allowing smoke in the workplace. On top of that, TDOA supports the governor.
Yet overall, where other proposed bills have failed, this bill has succeeded as the first smoke-free legislation backed by the Tennessee Restaurant Association (TRA).
"We always said if a bill like this came along, we'd support it," says Ronnie Hart, executive director of TRA. "[Restaurants] are the number-one entry-level position for kids coming to work. We want the opportunity to keep long-term, healthy employees."
Since John Vergos made the Rendezvous smoke-free, patrons who once avoided the restaurant because of cigarettes are coming back. "We've had zero complaints and far more thank-you's," he says.
The only smoke you'll find there is of the pork variety, and the kitchen is well-ventilated.