Smoking ban has been unhealthy for bar business
Share with others:
One year after a controversial smoking ban took effect for most Pennsylvania businesses and public places, the clear winners are celebrating while self-proclaimed losers are burning with anger over what they see as inequities in the Clean Indoor Air Act.
Health and government officials along with anti-smoking forces are cheering the results, which include cleaner air inside restaurants and taverns, healthier workplaces for their employees and growing evidence that reductions in second-hand smoke are saving lives and improving health.
State Health Secretary Everette James said second-hand smoke "has a deadly impact on workers and costs our health-care system billions of dollars." He said the new law, which took effect Sept. 11, 2008, "protects the health of millions of Pennsylvanians from the well-documented dangers of second-hand smoke.''
The Pennsylvania Alliance to Control Tobacco did a study which, it said, showed that air pollution in the state's "hospitality industry" -- bars, taverns, restaurants, bingo halls and bowling alleys -- decreased by an average of 87 percent due to the new law. The results are based on air samples taken before and after the ban took effect.
The alliance contends that the ban will save the lives of 52 hospitality industry employees each year.
But neighborhood taverns that are unable to qualify for an exemption from the smoking ban say that state gambling casinos and private clubs -- which can still allow smoking -- are luring away their customers.
Amy Christie, executive director of the Pennsylvania Tavern Association, estimated that hundreds of taverns have closed in the past year: Six years ago there were 16,000 taverns in Pennsylvania. Today that number has dipped to 12,500, with much of the recent decline linked to the smoking ban.
Those still open had to spend up to $100,000 in a poor economy to tailor their businesses to the new law, she said.
The law states that restaurants with bars can allow smoking in the bar as long as it is walled off from the restaurant, with separate outside entrances to each.
Ms. Christie also criticized the Legislature for not allowing taverns to have video lottery terminals -- gambling machines that would be operated through the state lottery. Such machines would provide taverns with another source of revenue, while generating up to $500 million a year in tuition relief for some of the state's college students. That was a proposal by Gov. Ed Rendell, but it has stalled in the Legislature.
Taverns can be exempt from the ban only if their food sales make up 20 percent or less of total gross sales.
"Taverns got the short end of the stick, while casinos and private clubs can do whatever they want," Ms. Christie contended.
So far, nine slots casinos have opened in Pennsylvania, the latest being the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, which opened in August. The Clean Indoor Air Act allows smoking on 25 percent of the gambling floor.
But after 90 days, a casino can seek state permission to expand its smoking area to up to 50 percent of the gaming floor, and eight casinos have done so.
Expanding the smoking area is based on the "gross terminal revenue" from slot machines in the smoking section versus the machine revenue from the non-smoking section. If the non-smoking "gross terminal revenue'' is 25 percent or more below that of the smoking section, a casino can increase the size of the smoking section.
At The Meadows casino in Washington County, the "average win per day" from slots in the smoking area was $543 for a 90-day period in late 2008, compared to an average win of only $269 per machine in the nonsmoking area. That's a difference of 102 percent. At Presque Isle Downs in Erie, the difference in revenue from the smoking and nonsmoking areas was even bigger, 121 percent.
Clubs such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, plus various ethnic and fraternal organizations, can also allow smoking, unless they open the facility for a public event, such as a bingo or public dinner.
However, Ms. Christie said, it's still the taverns that are suffering.
She said 80 percent of the customers in such establishments are smokers, and taverns are reporting the loss of 60 percent of those customers.
She said the economy, the smoking ban and the Legislature's unwillingness to address problems for the tavern industry have produced "a horrible time for small liquor-license establishments in Pennsylvania."
"The government should treat adults like adults," Ms. Christie said. "What they imposed made the market even more unbalanced for small taxpaying businesses to be able to compete."
Cindy Thomas, executive director of Tobacco Free Allegheny, agreed with Ms. Christie that discomfort with the law stems from the inequities it created in the hospitality sector.
"It's not a level playing field," Ms. Thomas said. "But we have heard from a restaurateur who was forced to comply (with the new law) and he said that if he had realized how much this would have benefited his business, he would have banned smoking years ago."
Efforts are under way to persuade the Legislature that the existing exemptions should be reduced or eliminated, she said. Casinos have been adamant about retaining their smoking areas, and legislators aren't likely to change that.
Ms. Thomas said that only about 21 percent of the state's adult population smokes.
Ms. Thomas said that last September confusion about the law created problems, but she said she's now satisfied that most businesses have received the necessary information, with studies showing they are complying with the law.
The state Department of Health said it has issued eight citations for smoking-ban violations in establishments such as bingo and pool halls, which do not have liquor licenses. The state Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, which is under the state police, has issued 249 citations for violations and 288 warnings, so far, to establishments with liquor licenses.
Citations carry fines of $50 to $1,000 per incident, said the bureau's Sgt. John Kean. He said many of the warnings pertain to a lack of proper signage as to whether a bar is smoking or non-smoking. He said he doesn't know of any establishment that has lost its liquor license over a smoking violation.
He said the bureau oversees about 4,100 establishments with liquor licenses in nine districts around the state. The Pittsburgh-area district, which includes Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties, has the largest number of liquor licensees.
Health officials said air-quality improvements inside restaurants are evident.
Sgt. Kean thinks the year-old law is working well.
"Obviously there are places that violate the law (by continuing to permit smoking), but by and large, I absolutely think it's helped clean indoor air. I can notice the difference when I go into restaurants" that used to allow smoking.
First Published September 14, 2009 12:00 am