Bristol Smoking Ban Irks Some

At Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, all seats are reserved, meaning fans cannot move to avoid cigarette smoke, one reason track president Jeff Byrd felt compelled to impose the ban.
At Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, all seats are reserved, meaning fans cannot move to avoid cigarette smoke, one reason track president Jeff Byrd felt compelled to impose the ban. (By Mark Humphrey -- Associated Press)

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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

BRISTOL, Tenn., March 15 -- Freddie Lochner has done the math, and he likes his chances.

Sunday's NASCAR race will draw roughly 160,000 stock-car racing fans to Bristol Motor Speedway, and there will be 400 ushers directing them to their seats and reminding them, if need be, that smoking is no longer allowed in the grandstands.

Lochner, 39, wouldn't dream of flouting Tennessee's new Non-Smoker Protection Act in a trackside luxury suite. But he thinks it's ridiculous to ban smoking in Bristol's open-air grandstands, which rise 20 stories above the half-mile bullring. And he's betting he won't get busted for taking a drag from his seat on Sunday, just like he has done for years, and letting the evidence waft into the air around him.

"You can drink as much beer as you want and get in your car and drive home, but you can't come in here and smoke a cigarette," Lochner said Saturday, while waiting out a rain delay in the track's concourse. "Now, which would you rather have: A guy smoking a cigarette sitting next to you, or a guy who drunk all that beer driving down the road next to you?"

It's hardly news that smokers are finding fewer places to light up in public. But this is NASCAR, a sport that was bankrolled by R.J. Reynolds's Winston brand for 33 years and has tobacco money and marketing expertise to thank for its dramatic growth.

And this is Tennessee, among the leading tobacco-producing states, where roughly one in four adults smoke.

That very statistic -- specifically, its implications for public health -- is what spurred Tennessee's legislature to enact the most far-reaching anti-smoking law in a tobacco state last October, banning smoking in all enclosed public workplaces and sports arenas.

At the time, Tennessee ranked 47th among the 50 states in terms of health, according to Susan Cooper, the first nurse to be appointed the state's health commissioner. The link to unhealthy behavior -- lack of exercise, poor diet, alcohol consumption and smoking -- couldn't be denied. Nor could the rights of the roughly 75 percent of adults, as well as children, who didn't smoke.

The result was a new law that tripled the tobacco tax, funded anti-smoking programs and banned smoking in enclosed places.

"We know that tobacco is bad for people who use it, but that's their right to smoke," Cooper said. "But secondhand smoke has harmful effects to others who are exposed to it, including pregnant women and children."

At Bristol, track officials had five months to figure out how to apply the law. It was a particularly wrenching process for Jeff Byrd, the speedway's president and general manager, who was reared in Winston-Salem, N.C., and worked in R.J. Reynolds's sports-marketing department for 23 years.

While the ban clearly applied to Bristol's restrooms and suites, it was less clear whether it applied to its grandstands. Byrd consulted with the track's lawyers, as well as his counterparts at the University of Tennessee and the NFL Tennessee Titans. All agreed that it should.


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