Smoke in a Crowded Theater

Comedian Ron White illuminates a barely considered limitation of Tennessee's smoking ban—with his cigar

Ron "Tater Salad" White, the gruff Texas stand-up comic who starred with Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Larry the Cable Guy on the Blue Collar Comedy Tours and the accompanying Comedy Central televised specials, is known for two things in his act, besides his blunt delivery and black suits: his glass of Johnnie Walker on the rocks and his ever-present cigar. White smoked his cigar (maybe more than one) right through his two sold-out sets at the Tennessee Theatre on Saturday, March 8, according to several people who attended the concerts.

The trouble is that cigars aren't allowed in the Tennessee Theatre since last year's statewide ban on smoking in public places took effect. No exceptions, not even for performers or actors. And that's a surprise for at least one prominent local promoter.

Some states that have barred smoking in restaurants and bars—Minnesota and New York among them—let actors in staged theatrical productions smoke on stage, as the play demands, in buildings where smoking is normally prohibited. Ashley Capps, president of AC Entertainment, the company that manages the Tennessee Theatre and promoted White's concerts, says he assumed Tennessee's smoking law provided the same sort of artistic license.

"Ron doesn't walk around the building smoking his cigar," Capps says. "It's like a play or something like that. That's my understanding, though I haven't really researched it. In New York, where there are smoking bans all over the place, you still see it onstage occasionally."

According to Milissa Reierson, communications director of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, however, there's no such allowance in Tennessee. The state ordinance that passed last summer and went into effect in October only provides exemptions for businesses that don't allow anyone under the age of 21 inside; tobacco manufacturers, wholesalers, and some retailers; businesses with three or fewer employees; nursing home residents; and private clubs.

"What we would do, if we were to learn of this, is contact [the venue] and go out and visit to make sure they were aware of the law," Reierson says. "Then we would write an advisory letter about the discussion. If there were another complaint, we'd follow up with a warning letter. After that we'd penalize them. We probably wouldn't penalize the performer; the stage is sort of in charge of that and should know."

The penalties range from $50 to $500, depending on the offense. The three violations under the ordinance are failure to have no-smoking signs, failure to prohibit smoking, and knowingly smoking in an area where smoking is prohibited.

"It's probably simply because no one thought about it," says Capps, who admits he never considered that the law would apply in this situation. "I'm guilty of being ignorant of that part of the law. I didn't know there wasn't an exception. I would have hated to have turned away Ron White.... He smokes in every single one of his performances or he will not perform."

Capps says he'll discuss the issue with the theater's board of directors to avoid further problems.