This month we survey the smoking scene in a comprehensive feature, including assessments by an experienced lobbyist and a tobacco company spokesman. In the ongoing war to ban – or permit – smoking in American taverns, there is good news and bad news.
You’re probably already familiar with the bad news. About 14 months ago, VT reported that for the first time in U.S. history, more than half of American citizens live in jurisdictions that ban smoking in bars, restaurants and workplaces. Today, around two dozen states have smoking bans that cover bars and restaurants. A half-dozen more appear poised to pass similar bans soon.
More bad news: When any state prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants, customer traffic in many locations drops 30% – and so does the bar’s bottom line. So does the cashbox. Many bars go out of business. During debates on proposed statewide bans, it has been vexing to see pro-smoking “experts” blithely claim bans won’t harm businesses long-term.
“We know better – but how are you going to argue with the American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association?” fumed one lobbyist who works with operators. “You are discredited and defeated before you open your mouth.”
But there’s also good news for tavern operators. When new or broader bans are proposed, hard data – from reputable sources – now exists that operators and taverns, working together, can use to make a case in statehouses and city halls.
In Colorado, a trade group has assembled a detailed case study showing how tavern profits plummeted by as much as 40% after that state passed its smoking ban two years ago. Colorado’s ban cost taverns at least $16.8 million in the first quarter it was in effect alone, said the Coalition for Equal Rights. (See its latest data at stopthebans.com.)
Even more persuasive, perhaps, is a recent study by an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank. Michael Pakko said bars are hardest hit by smoking bans, losing both revenues and jobs. His study appeared in The Regional Economist, a publication of the St. Louis Fed.
Can operators and vendors beat smoking bans? Not in every state, no. Often, the most this industry can hope for is to moderate bans and secure exemptions for bars and taverns. But that reprieve can make a world of difference. Even a “temporary” exemption of two or three years, as was won in Montana, gives the trade time to build or strengthen its coalition, assemble its data, hone its arguments, recruit allies among lawmakers and perhaps even run a PR campaign.
Smoking bans can be beaten. While VT has been obliged to run a steady series of reports about new legislation in more states, we’ve also published a handful of stories about operators who have defeated attempts to impose smoking bans on over-18 locations like bars and taverns.
One impressive example is North Dakota. Operators there defeated such a ban not once, but twice – in 2005 and 2007. They are confident of winning again when the issue resurfaces in the next legislative session. What is the secret of their success? Actually, it’s two secrets: a tight coalition of operators, tavern owners and hospitality professionals – and positioning themselves as anti-tobacco but pro-smoker, and as pro-health but anti-regulation.
In this issue, we also report an even more surprising victory. Several years ago, a husband-and-wife team, the Jacksons of American Vending Co. (Atlanta), almost single-handedly got Georgia’s legislature to amend its proposed blanket smoking ban to allow smoking in bars. Today, it’s still legal to vend cigarettes in Georgia bars, although American Vending is one of the state’s – and perhaps America’s – last 100% cigarette-vending operations.
No matter what your stance on smoking, the Jacksons’ story is instructive. If you’re a believer in “small-D democracy,” it might even be inspirational.