Restaurant owners fume over smoking ban

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Capital News Service
LANSING — The reactions are pouring in: Some restaurant owners are fuming about Michigan’s new smoke-free law that takes effect May 1.
“The state has stepped in and said, ‘We know more about the hospitality business than you do.’ Many of them are very upset,” said Andy Deloney, the Michigan Restaurant Association public affairs director.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed the bill in December that prohibits smoking in public places such as bars, restaurants, hotels and other businesses. The only establishments exempted are the gaming floors in Detroit casinos.
Tribal casinos aren’t covered since state laws don’t apply to Native American land.
Ron Dufina, owner of the Village Inn on Mackinac Island and in St. Ignace, said that his businesses will suffer greatly because of the law.
“I think it’s horrible,” he said. “You already can’t smoke in the dining room or on the patio. The only place you can smoke is in the bar, and I’ve spent a lot of money making it that way. Now customers can’t even do that.”
But the Michigan State Medical Society (MSMS) is welcoming the change. Gregory Forzley, who chairs the MSMS board, said that physicians have been advocating a smoking ban for five years.
“The Legislature has finally chosen to act on it,” said Forzley, a Grand Rapids family practitioner. “That’s tremendous. It’s an important public health issue as well as a personal health issue.”
Dufina said that he’ll “end up closing” the Village Inn in St. Ignace because of the law. He predicts he’ll lose most of his customers to the nearby tribal casino, where they can still smoke.
“The whole Upper Peninsula is going to be hurt,” he said. “I can tell you I won’t gain customers through this law.”
Deloney said two major factors contribute to the anger and unrest among many restaurant owners.
One is the power of choice and control that the new law takes away from them. By forcing all restaurants to provide a smoke-free environment, Deloney said, the state indicates that it knows how to run their businesses better than they do.
“Eleven years ago, there were 2,200 smoke-free restaurants in the state,” Deloney said. “Now there are more than 6,000. That’s a 174 percent increase.
“They know exactly what their customers want,” he said. “It’s not rocket science. To believe that because there is no state law there are no choices for smoke-free dining is ignorant.”
Dufina said he is extremely upset with the Legislature and will take action.
“I’m a member of the Michigan Restaurant Association, and we have worked tirelessly for 15 years to make sure this didn’t happen,” he said. “I’m going to make sure our representatives don’t get voted back into office.”
According to Deloney, uncertainty is the other factor because the exact regulations and how the new law will be enforced have yet to be determined.
“There’s a lot of confusion,” Deloney said. “We have 45 local health departments. There are some places with overzealous enforcement, others with virtually no enforcement. They’re already understaffed and underfunded.”
James McCurtis, a communications officer for the Department of Community Health, said the state is trying to figure out the answers to those questions.
“We’re right now working out plans on how the enforcement procedure is going to take place,” McCurtis said. “We’re working with the Legislature and local health departments in terms of how we’re going to enforce it, and whether it will be local health departments going in there and doing inspections when there is a complaint or if it will be police officers.”
Michael Rogers, the vice president of communications at the Small Business Association of Michigan, agreed that restaurant and bar owners will have the greatest hurdle to jump when it comes to complying.
“The biggest challenges are going to be for restaurants,” Rogers said. “A large number of their clientèle are smokers. They have to look at their business model and, first of all, communicate to the customers what the law is and that they’re required to comply.”
Rogers said that the best way for restaurants to adjust is with extra effort in public relations and communication.
“Small businesses, by and large, do a pretty good job on customer service,” he said. “They’ll have to work extra-hard in talking to customers, making sure they understand when the change arrives and when the deadline is for becoming completely smoke-free.”
Rogers said that owners could find alternatives to lure customers, such as specials for happy hour, and that it will be important to give customers other reasons to come besides smoking.
Deloney said that the ramifications of the new law will even affect owners who already run smoke-free establishments.
“Say I’m a restaurant that already prohibits smoking,” he said. “I have a way of dealing with it, I have my own policy. Now if someone comes in and smokes, my own policy doesn’t count anymore. I’m now subject to state sanction.”
Restaurants that voluntarily have been smoke-free will lose that marketing advantage, Deloney said.
McCurtis said that the roughly five months the department has to sort out the details is plenty of time and he isn’t concerned.
“It’s plenty of time to prepare for it,” he said. “It’s a state law now, so it’s something that we’re going to have to impose and implement.”
In the meantime, it’s a waiting game for Michigan business owners.
“We are going to continue to provide answers,” Deloney said. “We’re talking with the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Community Health and local health departments. We’re having conversations and answering and asking questions. Some of it is going to take time.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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