Smoking ban has cleared the air, but businesses suffer

Clusters of smokers standing outside bars have become a common sight since the state's smoking ban took effect a year ago. Some bar owners say the ban has hurt business. From left to right, Jerry Carpenter, Cheryl Frykman and Sheila Ortman smoke outside the American Legion club in Bemidji.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Drive by any bar in the state and you're likely to see a cluster of smokers puffing away outside. On a chilly afternoon outside the American Legion hall in Bemidji, military veteran Jerry Carpenter said he's gotten used to stepping out for a smoke. But that doesn't mean he likes it.

"It's miserable," Carpenter said.

Carpenter works part time at the Legion. He said the smoking ban has driven away business. Pull tab receipts are down and people who used to be regular customers don't come around as often and they don't stay as long. Carpenter said veterans especially, should have a right to smoke in their own club.

"They've served their country, and a lot of them are older veterans," Carpenter said. "They're not going to stand outside in 35 below zero weather and smoke. I mean, they'll sit at home and smoke."

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Bill Rice
Bemidji American Legion Manager Bill Rice says he blames the smoking ban for cutting the club's revenues in half.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The Bemidji American Legion has been smoke free longer than most bars in the state. That's because Beltrami County passed a smoking ban ordinance a full two years before the state did. Club manager Bill Rice said the ban is largely to blame for cutting the club's business in half.

"We were doing two and a half million in business in gross sales a year," Rice said. "We're down to a little over a million this year."

Rice has had to cut three jobs at the Legion since the smoking ban took effect. He's also had to figure out ways to attract new customers. The club opened its doors to non-members earlier this year, and that's boosted food sales some. He's added more happy hour specials and booked more dances to boost business.

As a non-smoker, Bill Rice said the one good thing about the ban is that he no longer faces a wall of smoke when he comes to work each day.

"Over the years of working here, you always breath it in," Rice said. "And of course our ceiling tiles are better, our walls are better, you know. Everything's better from a standpoint of cleanliness and not having to paint the walls and everything else, it's a good sign for us."

There's no clear data yet to fully assess the economic impact of the smoking ban. Over the past year, Minnesota lost about 1,000 jobs in bars and restaurants. That's significantly more lost jobs than the national average. But state employment analysts say it's not clear whether the smoking ban was a factor.

Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association interim director Tony Chesak said it's clear to him the ban is causing bars across the state to fail.

I'd say, realistically, 200 to 300 licensed establishments, at least, have closed.

"I'd say, realistically, 200 to 300 licensed establishments, at least, have closed," Chesak said. "I would think that would be a conservative number."

Membership in the association dropped about 25 percent this year. Chesak said the promise of non-smokers frequenting bars more often because of the smoke free law hasn't panned out.

"All the anti-smoking folks had said, you know, you get smoking out of your facilities and we'll come in droves," said Chesak. "Well, those droves didn't come out."

Supporters of the smoking ban say if bars are going out of business, it's likely more to do with the souring economy than anything else. Kerri Gordon is with the anti-smoking group ClearWay Minnesota. Gordon said there's plenty of good health news after one year of the smoking ban.

She points to a University of Minnesota study of the health of bar and restaurant workers exposed to second hand smoke. The study found an 85 percent drop in the level of some cancer-causing chemicals in workers' blood after the ban.

A poll conducted in September shows Minnesotans support the statewide smoke-free law by an overwhelming 77 percent. Gordon said national studies have found that smoking bans don't hurt businesses in states that have bans in place.

"We'll be looking at economic data after we are able to get a year's worth of data and compare it to previous years to be able to see if there has been an economic impact," Gordon said. "We don't think that there is going to be, based on the 20 other states that went smoke free before us."

The latest statewide tobacco use study shows the smoking rate in Minnesota is down to 17 percent. That's an historic low, and the fifth lowest smoking rate in the nation. The study was completed months before the state's smoking ban took effect. Health officials say they expect the ban will drive that number even lower.