Tobacco-Producing County Slow to Embrace Smoking Restrictions
SMITHFIELD, N.C. (AP) -- In North Carolina, only Pitt County grows more tobacco and derives more of its tax revenue from the golden leaf than does Johnston County.
Predictably, Johnston County officials have been slow to adopt the no-smoking ordinances and smoke-free zones that have become prevalent across much of North Carolina in recent years.
Recently, though, county residents' fierce loyalty to tobacco has been tested as one establishment after another has banned smoking, nibbling away at what used to be a smokers' haven.
``To tell you the honest truth, I'm embarrassed to ride by some of Johnston County's public facilities ... and see those good, hardworking employees at those installations standing outside in the rain trying to enjoy a cigarette,'' said Wade Stewart, a county commissioner who often smokes through commissioners' meetings. ``In my opinion, they ought to be inside, smoking at their desk, smoking and contributing.'' Stewart grew up on a tobacco farm and holds an allotment today.
Johnston County still has no countywide restriction on smoking in public buildings. But patients and doctors have not been allowed to light up in Johnston Memorial Hospital since 1992. Three years ago, the county's schools fell in line with federal and state law and prohibited those under 18 from smoking at school. The county Division of Social Services banned smoking last year in part because of crowded conditions that forced workers to share offices.
Last fall, Sheriff Steve Bizzell outlawed smoking in the county jail, a punishment that makes incarceration especially tough for some.
To some Johnston County residents, smoking bans are an assault against the crop that has paid mortgages, sent children to school and helped build the county's hospital, courthouse and schools.
State law does not require nonsmoking areas in public places. Instead, a law adopted in 1993 by the General Assembly requires public facilities to maintain at least 20 percent of their space for smokers; ordinances passed by local government bodies since then must meet this standard.
``This is tobacco row,'' said Tyree Bunn, 23, of Selma, smoking a cigarette in the courthouse. ``You should be able to smoke here, if nowhere else... They make the cigarettes down here, know what I'm saying? That's like going down to Florida where they make oranges and saying you can't eat no oranges.''
But some smokers in Johnston County agree that restrictions make sense for health reasons.
``Well, I've got to respect that idea,'' said Ronnie Stanley of Four Oaks, a utilities contractor who smokes about three packs a day. At 43, Stanley has been smoking for about 28 years, and his left lung has collapsed twice. He said he knows his health problems have something to do with his nicotine habit.
But don't expect to see widespread change in Johnston County anytime soon. County politicians know better than to mess with tobacco.
``It really hasn't come up,'' said commissioners' Chairman James H. Langdon Jr., who once smoked two packs a day. He quit in 1973 - but not, he hurried to add, for health reasons. ``I assume it's because it's where we're at, what tobacco and tobacco products have meant to the county in terms of economics. And that's still a very big part of our county.''