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Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch

SmokefreeNC: FAQs

North Carolina’s Smoke-free Restaurant, Bars and Lodging Law makes nearly all restaurants and bars and most lodging establishments smoke-free starting January 2, 2010.

Whether you are a business owner, a smoker or a non-smoker, you are likely to have questions about how this law affects you. What changes will I need to make at my business? Where can I smoke now? What happens if I see someone smoking in an area that is supposed to be smoke-free?

Note: Some of the following questions and answers are adapted from material prepared by Aimee Wall with the University of North Carolina School of Government. For additional information about these questions and answers or the law, please visit North Carolina Public Health Law: Frequently Asked Questions.

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 General Information

Beginning January 2, 2010, smoking is prohibited in many more public places in North Carolina. Under the new law, enclosed areas of almost all bars and restaurants must be smoke-free. Smoking is also not allowed in most enclosed areas of lodging establishments, such as hotels, motels, and inns, if the establishment prepares and serves food or drink. A lodging establishment may designate no more than 20% of its guest rooms as smoking rooms.

Why was the law passed?

When the NC General Assembly passed the new law, it included formal “findings” explaining that “secondhand smoke has been proven to cause cancer, heart disease, and asthma attacks in both smokers and nonsmokers. In 2006, the United States Surgeon General reported that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.” This means that breathing in even a small amount of smoke from someone else's cigarette, cigar or pipe could be harmful to you. The new law will protect people from the harm cased by secondhand smoke.

When does the law go into effect?

Beginning at 12:00 a.m. on January 2, 2010.

Where are people not allowed to smoke?

Under the new law, smoking is not allowed in enclosed areas of almost all restaurants and bars.

Smoking is not allowed in most enclosed areas of lodging establishments, such as hotels, motels and inns, if the establishment prepares and serves food or drink. However, a lodging establishment may designate up to 20% of its guest rooms as smoking rooms.

Can people smoke outside of bars, restaurants and lodging facilities?

The new state law does not require unenclosed areas of restaurants, bars, and lodging establishments to be smoke-free. These establishments may, however, voluntarily put into place a policy that prohibits smoking in these unenclosed areas.

What is an enclosed area and an unenclosed area?

An area is considered to be enclosed if it has (A) a roof or other overhead covering and (B) walls or side coverings on all sides or on all sides but one. For example, a patio with a solid roof but walls on only two of its four sides would be considered unenclosed, but a patio that has a canvas roof and solid or canvas walls on three of its four sides would be considered enclosed.

What is considered an overhead covering, wall or side covering?

Wood, canvas, tarp, cloth or other similar materials are considered overhead coverings, walls or side coverings.

Mesh screens that allow free movement of air are not considered overhead coverings, walls or side coverings.

Are convenience stores, bowling alleys and other places that sell food also smoke-free?

It depends. If the business is required to comply with the state’s public health laws governing sanitation in food establishments, it must comply with the new prohibition on smoking. For example, a convenience store that has a hot food bar where a person can buy a hot dog, chili and other similar types of food will be inspected and graded by staff from a local health department. That store must comply with the new smoke-free law. The convenience store across the street, however, may not serve such food and therefore would not need to comply with the new smoke-free law.

Are electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) allowed under the new North Carolina law that bans smoking in restaurants and bars?

The electronic cigarette is a relatively new product that was not considered when this law was being drafted.  An e-cigarette is a cigarette-like device that does not meet the current definition of smoking in this new state law, which is “the use or possession of a lighted cigarette, lighted cigar, lighted pipe, or any other lighted tobacco product,” so their use is not prohibited under the new law.  Businesses have the authority, however, to prohibit the use of these products within their business. It may be in the best interest of a business to prohibit the use of e-cigarettes because: 1) their appearance is so similar to conventional cigarettes that there could be confusion by the public about whether or not the bar is in compliance with the law; and 2) their safety is not yet proven. At the federal level, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has joined other health experts to warn consumers about potential health risks associated with electronic cigarettes. The FDA is concerned about the safety of these products and how they are marketed to the public.  According to the FDA website, the FDA has been examining and detaining shipments of e-cigarettes at the border and has found that the products it has examined thus far meet the definition of a combination drug device product under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The agency has been challenged regarding its jurisdiction over certain e-cigarettes in a case currently pending in federal district court.

If a single, enclosed building houses multiple businesses and one or more of those businesses is subject to the smoke-free law, will the entire space need to be smoke free?  (Examples include a convenience store with a restaurant inside or an indoor flea market with food stands.)

It depends. If all the businesses in an enclosed building are under single ownership and at least one of those businesses is required to comply with the state’s new smoke-free restaurants and bars law, the entire building must comply with the new prohibition on smoking.  An example would be a convenience store that contains an eating establishment owned and operated by convenience store.

If the enclosed building contains more than one business and all of the businesses are not under the same ownership, only the business in the multi-use facility that is subject to the state’s new smoke-free restaurants and bars law must comply with the new prohibition on smoking.  An example would be a mall or an enclosed flea market with one or more restaurants among other businesses are operating under separate ownership.

This is a general guideline for applying the current law to multi-use spaces ­ there may be occasions where a public health official reaches a different conclusion about an unusual multi-use space. 

 Exceptions

Are there restaurants and bars that are not required to comply with the smoke-free law?

Yes. The following types of restaurants and bars are not required to comply with the new smoke-free law.

Cigar bars - In order to qualify for this exception and allow smoking, the cigar bar must satisfy all of the following criteria:

  • Gross revenue: The bar must generate 60% or more of its quarterly gross revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages and 25% or more from the sale of cigars.
  • Humidor: The bar must have a humidor – which is a box or room with constant humidity designed to store cigars or pipe tobacco on the premises.
  • Underage: The bar must not allow individuals under age 21 to enter.
  • Smoke: Smoke from the bar must not migrate from the bar to an enclosed area where smoking is prohibited under the state law, such as a restaurant.
  • New construction: If the cigar bar begins operation after July 1, 2009, it must be located in a freestanding structure occupied solely by the bar.
  • Reporting: The bar must submit quarterly revenue reports to the Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Public Health.

Non-profit private clubs and country clubs - In order to qualify for this exception, the club must satisfy all of the following criteria:

  • Membership: The club must maintain selective members.
  • Operations: The club must be operated by the members.
  • Restricted service: The club must not provide food or lodging for pay to anyone who is not a member or a member’s guest.
  • Nonprofit status: The club must either be:
    • incorporated as a nonprofit corporation under state law (found in G.S. Chapter 55A); or
    • exempt from paying federal income tax under federal Internal Revenue Code.

Restaurants that are exempt from the state’s sanitation laws: If a restaurant is not required to comply with the state’s sanitation laws (found in G.S. Chapter 130A, Article 8, Part 6), it will not be required to comply with the new smoke-free law. For examples and more details, please visit North Carolina Public Health Law: Frequently Asked Questions.

Are there lodging establishments that are not required to comply with the smoke-free law?

Yes. The following lodging establishments are not required to comply with the smoking law:

  • Lodging establishments that do not serve food or drink for pay.
  • Lodging establishments that are exempt from the state’s sanitation laws, including those that:
    • Have four or fewer lodging units,
    • Are condominiums,
    • Prepare or serve food or provide lodging to regular boarders or permanent houseguests only, except if there are 13 or more regular boarders or permanent houseguests who are either (1) disabled or (2) 55 years of age or older, or
    • Are private homes that occasionally offer lodging accommodations for two weeks or less to persons attending special events. It is important to remember that even if a lodging establishment is required to comply with the smoking law, it may still designate 20% of its guest rooms as smoking rooms.

Is smoking still allowed when the space of "private clubs" such as a VFW or American Legion hall is leased?

It depends on if the private club still maintains the following legal requirements of an exempt private club during the temporary lease time: 1) maintains selective members 2) is operated by the membership 3) does not provide food or lodging for pay to anyone who is not a member or a member's guest, and 4) is incorporated as a nonprofit during the leased time.

If a private club leases space on occasion to a group for an activity like bingo, for example, a determination needs to be made as to whether the activity is regulated during the time by the Commission for Public Health food and sanitation laws because food or drink is offered for pay. If the club is regulated by the food and sanitation laws during the lease time of the bingo activity the enclosed area must be smoke-free during that time of the lease period. On the other hand, if for example, the space in the private club is leased to member guests for an activity (e.g. wedding or party) and no food or drink is served for pay then smoking is allowed.

 Business Owners/Managers

How can a restaurant, bar or lodging establishment know if it is required to comply with the new smoke-free law?

The law prohibits smoking in “all enclosed areas of restaurants and bars.” In this law, the term “restaurant” is considered to be any establishment that is inspected and permitted by a local health department. A bar is an establishment that holds a state permit authorizing it to sell malt beverages (e.g., beer), wine, or mixed drinks on its premises with very few exceptions. The law also encompasses any lodging establishment that (1) serves food or drink for pay and (2) is required to comply with state public health laws related to food and drink sanitation. If a restaurant, bar or lodging establishment is unsure of its status under the smoking law, it should contact the local health department to request assistance.”

What does the new state law require a proprietor/owner/manager to do?

A person in charge of a restaurant, bar or lodging establishment that is subject to the new law must:

  • Post the required no-smoking signs in conspicuous locations,
  • Remove indoor ashtrays and other smoking receptacles, and
  • Direct any person who is smoking to extinguish the cigarette, cigar or other item.

Even if a restaurant, bar or lodging establishment is already smoke-free, the venue still must post the required signs and remove any remaining indoor ashtrays.

NOTE: The Commission for Public Health adopted rules in October 2009. Among other things, the Rules give detailed guidance on signage. Copies of free, downloadable signs and materials are available on the Tools for Businesses page or can be downloaded and printed through an office supply or sign store.

Can restaurant or bar employees smoke anywhere indoors?

No. In most situations smoking is not permitted anywhere inside the premises, including private offices and break rooms. Businesses that have had a separate room for smoking can no longer allow smoking in these rooms or anywhere else inside. The owner/manager must inform their employees who smoke that they must go outside to smoke. It is important to communicate early and clearly with employees to ensure they understand how the new smoke-free law applies to both them and customers.

What should I do if a customer refuses to stop smoking?

You or your staff must remind your customers of the law and should politely explain that they must step outside to smoke. Train your staff about what to say to customers, for example:

  • “State law no longer allows smoking inside here, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to step outside to smoke.”
  • “The new smoke-free law prohibits smoking indoors. Thank you for your cooperation.”
  • “We are under a smoke-free law now; I need to ask you to put out your cigarette.” 

If customers refuse to comply, use common sense. If necessary, use your normal protocol for removing a disruptive customer from your premises. You may contact local law enforcement to report the customer.

Do I have to post signs in my establishment, and where must they be posted?

Yes. The law requires no-smoking signs in conspicuous locations stating that smoking is prohibited. The rules require the following for the no smoking signs: (1) Be posted at each public entrance at a height and location easily seen, (2) Be at least 24 square inches in size (for example, 4 by 6 inches), (3) Be in legible font type, (4) Display: (a) The Division’s toll-free complaint line telephone number, (b) “G.S.130A-497” (c) “www.smokefree.nc.gov”.

The signs may include the international "No Smoking" symbol, which consists of a pictorial representation of a burning cigarette enclosed in a red circle with a red bar across it. All establishments subject to the new law, regardless of their smoking policies before the law goes into effect, must post signs.

Free, downloadable signs and materials are available on the Tools for Businesses page.

If my restaurant/bar is already smoke-free, do I have to post signs?

Yes. Every restaurant, bar or lodging establishment covered by the law will be required to post no-smoking signs in a conspicuous location stating that smoking is prohibited.

Free, downloadable signs and materials are available on the Tools for Businesses page.

Is hookah smoking allowed?

Smoking hookah is only allowed if the hookah establishment is not a restaurant, bar or lodging establishment, does not serve food or drink for pay and is notrequired to comply with state public health laws related to food and drink sanitation.

Free, downloadable signs and materials are available on the Tools for Businesses page.

 Following the Law

What do people in charge of restaurants, bars and lodging establishments need to do to comply with the new smoking law?

A person in charge of a restaurant, bar or lodging establishment that is subject to the new law must now:

  • Post the required no-smoking signs in conspicuous locations,
  • Remove indoor ashtrays and other smoking receptacles, and
  • Direct a person who is smoking to extinguish the cigarette, cigar or other item.

Even if a restaurant, bar or lodging establishment is already smoke-free, the venue still must post the required signs and remove any remaining indoor ashtrays.

Free, downloadable signs and materials are available on the Tools for Businesses page.

What do customers have to do?

Customers must simply comply with the law. It is an infraction to continue to smoke in a nonsmoking business, as described in this law, following oral or written notice by the person in charge of the area or the person's designee. The person committing the infraction may be punished by a fine of not more than fifty dollars ($50.00).

Enforcement

How will the law be enforced?

If you observe or note a possible violation, please notify the owner or manager of the establishment. They are responsible for compliance and are required to direct a person who is smoking to extinguish the lighted tobacco product. 

This law went into effect on January 2, 2010. If you encounter a violation you can now file a complaint online or by telephone.

For more information or to report a potential violation, please call the Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch at 919-707-5400 or your local health department.

How can I file a complaint if someone is smoking in a restaurant or bar?

If you observe or note a possible violation, please notify the owner or manager of the establishment. They are responsible for compliance and are required to direct a person who is smoking to extinguish the lighted tobacco product.

This law went into effect on January 2, 2010. If you encounter a violation you can now file a complaint online or by telephone.

Contact information for local health departments can be found at http://www.ncalhd.org/county.htm. Ultimately, businesses that are not following the smoke-free law may be issued warnings and/or fines for violating the law more than two times.

What are the specific penalties for violating the smoke-free law?

Both the individual who continues to smoke in violation of the law and the business can be fined under this law.

  • Individual
    • $50 fine for an infraction
  • Business Owner
    • First Violation: Warning
    • Second Violation: Warning
    • Third and Subsequent Violations: Fine of not more than $200; Each day on which a violation of this law or rules adopted pursuant to this law occurs may be considered a separate and distinct violation.

Resources and Quitting Tobacco

Where can I get information about quitting smoking?

Call the N.C. Tobacco Use Quitline, which operates from 8 a.m. until 3 a.m. seven days a week. The toll-free number for North Carolina is 1-800-784-8669. The Quitline services are free to all residents of North Carolina. Expert Tobacco Quit Coaches can call you back upon request. English, Spanish and other languages are available. All calls are free and confidential

Local Ordinances

May a local government adopt a local law that differs from the statewide smoking law?

Yes. A local government may adopt a local law restricting or prohibiting smoking that is more restrictive than the state law. In other words, the local law can place more restrictions on smoking or prohibit smoking in more places than is currently provided for in the state law. The local law may not reduce or take away restrictions and prohibitions provided for in the state law. This local authority extends to the following locations:

  • Local government buildings,
  • Unenclosed areas owned, leased, or occupied by the local government,
  • In passenger-carrying vehicles owned, leased, or otherwise controlled by local government and assigned permanently or temporarily by local government to local government employees, agencies, institutions, or facilities for official local government business, and
  • Enclosed areas to which the public is invited or in which the public is permitted (i.e., “public places”).

The local governments may not, however, adopt a local law that restricts or prohibits smoking in the following places:

  • A private residence,
  • A private vehicle,
  • A tobacco shop (subject to limitations provided for in the law),
  • Property of a tobacco leaf grower or tobacco products processer or manufacturer,
  • A motion picture, television, theater, or other live production set, with respect to the actor or performer portraying the use of tobacco products during the production,
  • Designated smoking guest rooms in lodging establishments (up to 20% of the guest rooms),
  • Cigar bars (on this page, see the Exceptions questions group, then "Cigar bars"), and
  • Private clubs, including country clubs

Can my county or municipality pass a local ordinance that allows smoking in bars or for-profit private clubs?

No. A local law cannot be less strict than the state law.

What are some examples of other areas in which smoking could be prohibited by a local ordinance?

A local law can be more restrictive than the state law regarding local government grounds and certain public places. "Grounds” are defined in the law as an unenclosed area owned, leased, or occupied by State or local government. Public places are defined by the law as an enclosed area to which the public is invited or in which the public is permitted. Examples of other areas that a community can make smoke-free include: government controlled parks and beaches, government grounds, retail stores, all convenience stores, laundry-mats, shopping malls, sports arenas, theaters, public transportation vehicles and facilities and common areas of multi-unit housing buildings.

What types of local government entities can adopt these local laws?

The term “local government” is defined in the law as “a local political subdivision of this State, an airport authority, or an authority or body created by an ordinance, joint resolution, or rules of any such entity.” G.S. 130A-492(4). The clause “local political subdivision of this State” is often seen as referring primarily to cities and counties, but there are other types of local government entities that have authority to pass local laws and likely fall within this definition. The types of local government entities that are most likely to become involved in local lawmaking with respect to smoking include:

  • A board of county commissioners, which may adopt an ordinance governing smoking in the unincorporated areas of the county (i.e., areas of the county that are not part of a city or town),
  • A city council, which may adopt an ordinance governing smoking within the city or adopt a resolution agreeing to have a county ordinance apply within the city limits;
  • A local board of health, which may adopt a rule governing smoking throughout the entire county,
  • A district board of health governing multiple counties, which may adopt a rule governing smoking throughout all of the counties represented in the district, or
  • An airport authority, which may adopt a rule governing smoking on property owned or controlled by the authority.

One unique characteristic of the smoking law is that it requires boards of county commissioners to adopt an ordinance approving any smoking rule adopted by a local board of health after July 1, 2009. Local boards of health are not required to have this type of approval for any other types of rules that they adopt.

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