Smoking ban’s effects on area unpredictable

Smoking bans effects on area unpredictable

In Plano, it’s a typical late night at Kelly’s Eastside restaurant – typical, that is, since the city’s smoking ban was enacted June 1.Before then, Kelly’s co-owner Carin Kelly said, the restaurant was host to a bustling late-night happy hour. These days, she said, the once-packed patio is only populated by a few non-smoking stragglers and the restaurant’s employees.

In Arlington, Saltimbocca’s Italian Bistro sits empty – the victim, its owner says, of Arlington’s smoking ban.

“We had a pretty regular bar crowd,” owner Brett Russell said. “You’d see the same faces night in and night out, and about 20 percent of those people smoked. That group stopped coming in after the ban started, and their friends went with them.”

In Fort Worth, however, it remains to be seen whether the new smoking ban will leave restaurant owners tending to almost vacant establishments.

For restaurants in many neighboring cities, the bans have been an economic death knell, but given the timing of the Fort Worth ban and the city’s location within the Metroplex, the outlook for local restaurants may be less dismal.

The ordinance, which was adopted Aug. 21, is not comprehensive – it doesn’t ban smoking in all public places.

Several establishments are exempt from the ban, including bars, tobacco shops and certain hotel rooms. The exception that most concerns restaurateurs is bars.

Come Jan. 1, a business will be considered a bar in Fort Worth (and, thus, exempt from the ban) if it meets the qualifications set forth by the ordinance: “an establishment licensed by the state which has more than 70 percent of its annual gross sales from alcoholic beverages for consumption by guests on the premises.”

Negative impacts

Some restaurateurs say the ban will hurt businesses whose sales numbers are on the bubble between definition as a restaurant or as a bar. Failure to meet the qualifications for a bar, they say, could mean substantial profit loss.

Shannon Wynne, owner of Flying Saucer in downtown Fort Worth, said the ban is a threat because it isn’t comprehensive. Flying Saucer will be exempt, he said, but the ordinance will hurt other businesses that sell a bit more food.

“Other businesses are going to be impacted a lot,” he said. “The ban is going to hurt them terribly and the Fort Worth City Council is to blame.”

Charles Espinosa, president of the Tarrant County Restaurant Association, agreed.

“The ban certainly can have a big impact,” he said. “These restaurants that are primarily bars are going to be punished just because they sell more food during lunches or on weekends.”

A manager at Pop’s Safari, a bistro, cigar and fine wine shop in Fort Worth, said the ban would cut into at least one-third of profits.

The flip side

Others, however, say the worst is over – that the restaurants that took the brunt of smoking bans’ effects in other cities only did so because other cities had yet to pass bans.

“The climates and the attitudes about smoking policy were different when Dallas passed its ban (in 2003), so there was a larger impact,” said Jamee Green, executive director of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association. “Fort Worth is taking action now but all the surrounding cities have enacted different ordinances, so they probably aren’t going to see as much of an impact.”

Eric Tschetter, owner of The Pour House in downtown Fort Worth, is a TCU alumnus and member of the ad hoc committee the City of Fort Worth appointed to research a possible ban and agreed with Green.

“I don’t think I see businesses losing business,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect anyone enough to where they’ll go out of business. But I would like to see an across-the-board ban so people just can’t smoke anywhere.”

Other restaurant managers of Fort Worth businesses echoed Tschetter and Green.

Managers at The Bronx Zoo, 8.0 Restaurant and Bar, and Snookie’s Bar and Grill said they are mildly concerned about the ban, but they don’t foresee an immense drop in profits.

David Rotman, general manger of Cafe Aspen in Fort Worth, said the city’s location is one of the reasons he expects a less-than-dire effect on his business.

“Fortunately for us, most of the cities around us have passed 100 percent bans,” he said. “So if people want to go somewhere and smoke, they’re going to have to go really far or deal with what has been decided.”

Measuring the economic footprint

Hypotheses aside, however, a reliable means of measuring smoking bans’ impact has been elusive.

“When you’re trying to measure economic impact, what you’re asking is whether or not there’s been a change in the sales tax revenues based on the smoking ordinance,” said Greg Last, director of economic development for the City of Southlake. “I don’t have any idea how you could possibly measure any changes in total visitation to the city or in taxes.”

Last isn’t alone in his skepticism.

Polly Anderson, policy director for the Colorado Community Health Network, has examined a slew of studies that attempt to measure smoking bans’ economic effects nationwide. Few, she said, have escaped certain misgivings about their legitimacy.

She said each approach used to evaluate the impact of smoking bans has faced some kind of criticism. The sheer variation in smoking rates, economic climates and types of bans or enforcement, she said, makes measuring economic impact a thorny task.

Anderson said there has been some consistency among peer-reviewed studies, however.

The surgeon general’s 2006 report, called “The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke,” confirms Anderson’s view.

According to the report, “Evidence from peer-reviewed studies shows that smoke-free policies and regulations do not have an adverse economic impact on the hospitality industry.”

But those findings don’t necessarily mean smoking bans don’t ever have a negative impact.

“Peer-reviewed studies have found smoking bans don’t really have an overall impact on restaurants and bars,” she said. “Sales tax revenue either stayed the same or grew, but the findings definitely mask the individual experience of certain bar or tavern owners, which could be negative.”

The outcome

Several North Texas restaurants seem to exemplify the types of places the findings could mask.

“We pretty much no longer have a happy hour like we used to,” Kelly of Kelly’s Eastside in Plano said. “It used to be all the restaurant employees and late night people who got off and wanted to stop and have a beer and a cigarette, and now they go to Richardson.”

Chris O’Dell, owner of Arlington Steak House, echoed Kelly’s sentiments, in spite of the fact that he didn’t anticipate a change in business before Arlington’s ban took effect in January.

He said most of his smoking clientele now goes to Pantego for dinner.

For Snookie’s Bar and Grill in Southlake, the city’s ban, which took effect June 1, was a death sentence.

According to a manager at Snookie’s in Fort Worth, the bar closed because the ban forced so many smokers to take their business to Grapevine and Hurst.

For some, however, the ban was anything but damaging.

Ed Wilsberg, executive director of the Benbrook Chamber of Commerce, said the city’s smoking ban has boosted business because smokers stayed at their tables longer and ordered less food. This way, he said, table turnover is far higher.

“People used to stay around and smoke for 45 minutes and they’d smoke for a while before they ordered,” he said. “The ban frees up that space – and a lot of people don’t like to go in restaurants where they smoke.”

Robert King, a manager at Cracker Barrel in Benbrook, said business has improved at his restaurant because most of his clientele are bothered by secondhand smoke. The complaints since going smoke-free, he said, have been few and far between.

But Benbrook hasn’t been the only area that has seen higher profits since the introduction of a smoking ban.

“I tell you, man, there are more people now,” said Victor Sanchez, manager of Manny’s Tex-Mex Grill in Frisco. “There are more young people and there are more families than there used to be. This place is growing a lot.”

Even if the Fort Worth ban does have a negative impact, community business leaders seem to agree the ban’s economic effects could be offset by other factors.

“Often times on these types of issues there will be a few who will be adversely affected by the legislation,” said Andra Bennett, director of communications at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. “But for what the ban does for the majority of the members and businesses and what it does for our economy – long term, the Chamber feels it’s best.