Some bars lose business as smokers prefer casinos

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Capital News Service
LANSING – The no-smoking law has had mixed effects on Michigan’s bars and restaurants.
The ban that began on May 1 requires businesses to remove ashtrays, post no-smoking signs and ask smokers to step outside or leave if they don’t comply.
“It’s about protecting the employees who are exposed to secondhand smoke with no other choice,” said Linda Buzas, president of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health. “It’s not about taking away rights.”
Andy Deloney, vice president of public relations for the Michigan Restaurant Association, said 60 percent of its members surveyed in August experienced some sort of impact. Among them, 43 percent reported a decline in business, customer traffic or lottery sales.
John Hermanson, owner of Johnny’s Tavern in Newberry, said the ban is not entirely responsible for his slowdown.
“There’s been a decrease in business but I don’t know if I can blame it on the smoking ban. It’s the economy,” he said, also noting that a heightened police presence looking for drunken drivers is a factor.
Tom Sposito, owner of Driftwood Restaurant and Sports Bar in St. Ignace, said that 75 percent of the bar’s clientele were smokers prior to the ban. Although more families are inclined to eat at the sports bar, nighttime business is hurting, he said.
“It’s weird — the bar does decent during the day,” Sposito said. “There used to be a wave of people around 10:30 p.m. We used to have 50 to 100 people then.  Now it’s 20 if we’re lucky.”
Sposito said alcohol sales fell 30 percent shortly after the ban and have lingered at 20 to 30 percent lower than previous years.
Driftwood currently operates year-round, but due to the effects of the ban, Sposito may rethink his months of operation.
“It’ll be harsh. We’ll make it through this winter, but next year we’ll probably be picking a time to close,” he said. “The smaller, outlying bars will definitely be going down.”
Deloney said restaurants have fired employees or cut their hours to compensate for the business decline.
“Thank you, government of Michigan, you’re putting a severe strain on those who were already hurting,” he said. “The employees that the legislators were so intent to helping aren’t getting enough hours or making enough money.”
Don Marple, owner of Flanigan’s, a bar in Marquette, has let go half of his employees since the ban went into affect, reducing from 14 people to seven.
Marple said he had no choice because sales were down by $1,500 in June and $1,400 in July. Sales are slowly starting to come back, but not as high as before.
“We’ve done everything we can do. We’re even selling electronic cigarettes,” Marple said. “We own our building, we pay our taxes and the health department tells us what we can and cannot do? That’s like communism to us.”
But Meghan Swain, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, said the ban makes “good sense. We need to separate the money issue from the fact that it’s a public health issue.”
Marple and Sposito said there’s an unfair competition with casinos in their areas that are Native-American owned and exempt from the ban.
“I don’t mind the non-smoking so much as that it’s an unfair business advantage. Everyone’s leaving to go smoke and drink there,” Marple said.
Buzas, of the health departments’ association, said that’s not the case everywhere Michigan.
“Until I actually saw data, I would credit that to myth,” she said.
Hermanson is looking on the bright side, noting that the ban has made it easier on the equipment and the building.
“I still think it’s a good idea. We’re just catching up with other states where it’s been the norm,” he said. “Plus, I don’t go through a bottle of Visine each week anymore.”
Hermanson said Johnny’s is attracting non-smokers who otherwise wouldn’t go to the bar. And now when customers do smoke, it’s a social activity, he said.
“Normally, smokers wouldn’t interact, but once they go outside, they have something in common,” he said.
But Hermanson said that the ban makes it difficult to manage smokers, who still sometimes try to light up inside or take alcohol outside.
Sposito said that although he asks customers who try to smoke indoors to stop, some refuse and “that’s just how they are.”
Nick Derusha, the health officer for the Luce Mackinac Alger Schoolcraft District Health Department, said his agency isn’t trying to come down hard on restaurant and bar owners.
“We’re trying to work with folks as much as possible,” he said.
Derusha has received four complaints about people smoking indoors at restaurants but hasn’t issued any citations yet.
Since the ban was enacted, health departments across the state have received 583 complaints about people smoking indoors, according to the Department of Community Health.
Restaurant and bar owners are trying to please their smokers. Marple spent $8,000 for an outdoor area where people can sit but can’t be served alcohol or food. Henderson said he plans to build one this winter.
Deloney said restaurants report that they won’t know the real impact of the ban until winter, when smokers are less inclined to stand outside.
And Marple said that once cold weather hits, he can’t predict how his business will be.
“I’m scared to death and I’m bracing for the worst,” he said. “The best thing to do right now is for everyone to put their businesses up for sale because they’re going to tank soon.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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