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Saturday, 13 October 2012 11:35

Smoking gun? Study shows little impact from smoking ban, but trade group pushes for options

Written by  Nick Manes
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WEST MICHIGAN — Two and a half years ago, many West Michigan bar and restaurant owners worried that their businesses could be snuffed out like finished Marlboros in an ashtray.

The reason: The state had approved a ban that would prevent people from smoking in their establishments. Without the ability to let patrons smoke and drink, many wondered how they would continue to maintain the steady stream of regulars who helped sustain their businesses.

Depending on who you ask, the impact of the ban has either been indiscernible or business-altering.

In August, the University of Michigan released a study tracking sales tax collected at bars and restaurants, as well as the sales of cigarettes and Club Keno, in relation to the state’s smoking ban, which took effect on May 1, 2010. The authors said the data had “no significant negative effect” on bars and restaurants — or on cigarette sales.

The results of the state-funded study, however, are being called into question by a bar and restaurant lobbying group, as well as some business owners.

The U-M study states that “overall, the evidence is consistent with the results from other states and localities that have found no significant economic effects associated with smoking bans.”

The Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, a trade group for bars and restaurants, has disputed the findings of the study. Scott Ellis, executive director for the MLBA, stated that the U-M study was not comprehensive because it failed to include on-premise liquor sales, which he said were down 3.2 percent. MLBA released a report using state numbers that showed off-premise sales increased the same amount — 3.2 percent.

Aside from the association squabbling about the numbers, however, the MLBA is not interested in repealing the smoking ban, Ellis said. Instead, the group would like the state to consider different options other than a total ban. Currently, the law is written that smoking is not allowed anywhere drinks or food are served.

The association said it would like the state to consider “some sort of compromise, like a patio or smoking room,” he said. “If the establishment wanted to make a rule where the employees don’t have to go in there to serve — (or) whatever the establishment wants to set up, but give them two options.”

The MLBA is not alone in those sentiments. Lyndi Charles works as the general manager of Billy’s Lounge and Mulligan’s Pub, both located in the Eastown neighborhood of Grand Rapids. Charles stated that when the ban went into effect, her bars experienced an immediate 40-percent drop in their happy hour business.

“Since you couldn’t smoke inside the bars, people figured it was easier and cheaper to stay home,” Charles said. “Another thing was that they could now go anywhere to happy hour. There were a lot of places around town that you couldn’t smoke at before (and) that served food, so why not go to those places instead. Obviously, our perk before was that you could smoke.”

Charles said that Billy’s and Mulligan’s experimented with little things like bloody mary bars and free hot dogs on Sunday afternoons to attempt to make up for the decrease in business.

“There’s not much you can do if you don’t serve food,” she said.

During traditionally busy bar hours, Charles believes there was not much of a change in sales at the two bars, located just one block from each other.

“At night at Billy’s, I do not think that there was too much of a difference as we had an older crowd that really liked the fact that you couldn’t smoke in the bar,” she said. “At Mulligan’s, I think it changed our sales a bit, but nothing extremely drastic.”

Charles supports the MLBA’s push for options, pointing to Florida’s smoking law that permits smoking on patios and verandas in instances where a bar is part of a restaurant. In bars that are not restaurants, or where less than 10 percent of their gross revenue comes from food sales, smoking is allowed if the business so chooses.

Just as the results of the two studies were vastly different, there is also little consensus among business owners over the results of the ban. The change brought opportunity for some entrepreneurs, who are ecstatic about the effect the ban has had on their business.

Downtown Grand Rapids restaurateur Mark Sellers of BarFly Ventures LLC, the parent company of businesses such as HopCat, Stella’s Lounge, and the soon-to-open Grand Rapids Brewing Co., believes the ban has had a positive impact on his business. While HopCat permitted smoking in an upstairs loft section, none of Sellers’ other bars allowed smoking.

“We’ve been up every year since the smoking ban took effect,” Sellers said. “In fact, in July 2010 (just after the ban went into effect) we hit an inflection point and things really took off. I think it’s because people who used to not go out to bars because of smoke now venture out more often.

“Not only did it have no negative effect on our business, it had a positive effect.”

Sellers said anecdotally that he thinks those grousing about the ban are mostly the establishments that have no food, since their crowds tend to be there just to drink and are more likely to smoke.

Sellers takes a hard line on the MLBA’s stance on the smoking ban.

“Any rhetoric uttered by fear mongers about how the smoking ban would hurt restaurants was pure political dogma,” Sellers said.

Read 3617 times Last modified on Saturday, 13 October 2012 13:04

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