Nashville could use state law to snuff out 21-and-up smoking bars

By: - June 14, 2022 7:05 am
Brian Alexander and Christy Peterson enjoy a cigarette and a beer at Fran's East Side in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Brian Alexander and Christy Peterson enjoy a cigarette and a beer at Fran’s East Side in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Fran’s East Side is no longer on Nashville’s east side, but regulars  still enjoy a cold beer and a drag on a cigarette.

Known as one of the city’s best dive bars – now located on Dickerson Pike after decades in East Nashville – it offers karaoke, pool tables and a cloud of smoke on most nights.

That freedom to light up, though, could disappear in Metro Nashville clubs, even for the 21-and-up crowd, after the Legislature passed a measure enabling local governments to outlaw smoking in age-restricted venues, even honky tonks where people have been smoking and jamming for years.

Signed by Gov. Bill Lee, the law takes effect July 1, and Metro Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s office is working closely with the Metro Health Department to explore wording for legislation the Metro Council could consider. The mayor generally supports restricting smoking in bars.

Such a move could cause unrest in places such as Fran’s East Side where a longneck still costs only $2.50 and you’re free to fire up a butt.

The people who smoke now, they have no otions. You can't smoke at no restaurants . . . The bar's all you got left.

– Donnie Barber of Nashville

Fran’s East Side typically packs in its biggest crowd at night. But it’s still a favorite refuge during the day, with that old, familiar smell of stale smoke.

“If you’re above 21 years old and you’re in a bar and you’re drinking beer, you should be allowed to smoke a cigarette,” says Nashville resident Matt Yunker as he hangs out with buds on a recent day. “As far as the people around you who don’t want to be close to cigarettes, move to the next table or go outside.”

His friend Donnie Barber of Nashville is even more adamant.

“The people who smoke now, they have no options. You can’t smoke at no restaurants. … The bar’s all you got left. If you can’t get in a bar and have a beer and a cigarette, it’s f—ed up,” Barber says.

Yunker says he can understand prohibitions on smoking at restaurants and places where children are allowed to go. He and Barber acknowledge that most of the bars on Broadway in the tourist area of Nashville have banned smoking already.

Fran's East Side, a legendary smoky dive in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Fran’s East Side, a legendary smoky dive in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Regardless of whether the Legislature is controlled by Republicans or Democrats, though, they “shouldn’t be allowed to sit down and write legislation” that infringes on the rights of private businesses and individuals, Yunker says. Nor should Metro Nashville be given that power, he adds.

Yet lawmakers who passed the legislation this year said they were doing it mainly to protect the musicians, bartenders and waiters and waitresses who still work in clubs and bars that allow smoking. Second-hand smoke is believed to be nearly as dangerous as smoking.

Sen. Frank Niceley, a Strawberry Plains Republican, claimed he grew up on second-hand smoke when he opposed the legislation on the Senate floor this year, arguing against it primarily on the grounds it encroached on the rights of private businesses.

Despite Niceley’s relatively good health, second-hand smoke causes nearly 34,000 premature deaths from heart disease annually nationwide, and non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke have a 25-30% increase for the risk of heart disease.

Sponsored by Sen. Richard Briggs, a Knoxville Republican and physician, the bill passed the upper chamber on a 21-8 vote. Most of those opposed were Republicans. 

In the House, the measure scraped by 56-33, getting barely more than a handful for a constitutional majority and with 32 Republicans voting in opposition.

The law will not apply to cigar bars and vape and tobacco stores.

Rep. Mark Cochran, R-Englewood, carried the Republican mantle against the legislation, mainly arguing it oversteps government boundaries.

Cochran acknowledged the legislation left the decision to local government to regulate smoking over 21 years of age, rather than making the Legislature the culprit.

“But that takes the right away from a private property owner or the private owner of a club who’s established their business. They’ve made it their policy that they allow smoking,” Cochran said. “If the public doesn’t want to go to that establishment, they can vote with their feet and allow the free market to work. Where I have an issue is government stepping in and saying we don’t care that you own this property, we don’t care that you own this club, we’re not going to allow you to allow smoking.”

Rep. Michelle Carringer, the House sponsor of the measure, pointed out that musicians brought the bill to her. 

Stacy Mitchhart, a blues guitarist and staple of Nashville’s Printers Alley, says the 2007 law that enabled many clubs to ban smoking has changed his life. “It’s made a big difference for me being able to do what I do,” he says. The smoke in clubs used to give him bouts of sinusitis and affected his singing.

The Knoxville Republican contended it will protect their health and that of others who spend long hours in bars playing music or serving drinks.

“They are the only essential group in Tennessee that do not have a guarantee of a smoke-free workplace,” Carringer said.

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen signed the non-smoker protection act into law in June 2007, making it illegal to smoke in most places where people work. Since then, most restaurants and clubs have eliminated smoking, making it hard for smokers to find a place to fit in.

Count Nashville bluesman Stacy Mitchhart, a longtime staple at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar in Printers Alley, among musicians supporting a cigarette ban.

The 63-year-old musician started playing in smoking bars when he was 15 and suffered sinusitis infections for years. When the law changed 15 years ago and clubs started to prohibit smoking, his bouts with sinusitis began to subside. So did his difficulty with singing after a night in a smoke-filled joint. It took hours for his voice to open up and still does if he happens to play in a smoking club. Most of the clubs are non-smoking, though, which makes him feel better.

“Now, I can literally get up and 20, 30 minutes later, I can go to the studio and sing because there’s no smoking,” Mitchhart says. “It’s made a big difference for me being able to do what I do and just for my overall health. So I would be 100% behind them doing that so I wouldn’t have to worry about that ever.”

Fears that the smoking ban would drive away customers were short-lived, too, Mitchhart says. Most people who smoke simply go outside for a break, then come back in.

Yunker agrees, saying if someone who smokes encounters a bar with restrictions, they should just go outside or to another place that allows it.

“But smoking in a bar, as far as I’m concerned, they should not be able to control that. And we should be able to sit down at a bar and drink a beer and smoke a cigarette,” he says.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.