Colo. businesses worry about survival after smoking ban
June 29, 2006
DENVER – John Hoekstra understands the anxiety that many Colorado restaurant and bar owners are feeling as they wait for a statewide smoking ban to start Saturday.Hokestra, of Steamboat Springs, watched his “smoky pool hall” go cigarette-free after that town enacted a similar ban last year – then saw his workload increase and his sales sink by $5,000-$6,000 a month.”During Broncos season and stuff, I’d have a place full of people. Last year for the Broncos, I’d have one or two people at the bar,” said Hoekstra, who has owned Golden Cue Billiards for 19 years in the small resort town. “They go home and do it instead.”Some business owners worry that smokers will abandon their local watering holes when Colorado becomes the 13th state in the nation to ban smoking in bars, restaurants and workplaces. Others see an opportunity to attract nonsmokers with fresh air. Still others worry they won’t have enough patience or money to adapt.”I think there will be stories on both sides of this,” said Pete Meersman, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “I think it will help some and hurt others.”
A coalition of about 500 owners of bars, bowling alleys, liquor stores and other businesses tried to stop the ban before it took effect. They sued the state this month, alleging the law violates their constitutional rights because it doesn’t apply to other businesses, such as casinos and cigar bars.A judge denied their request for a temporary restraining order last week, though the lawsuit can proceed.Zack Ford, membership director of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, said members were “terrified,” especially after watching small businesses close after smoking bans were passed in Fort Collins, Pueblo and other towns.”A lot of people have their entire lives wrapped up in their businesses, in their bars,” he said.Other business owners, though, say they’re eager for the change.Christine Sullo, director of marketing for Rio Grande Mexican Restaurants, said the chain learned to adapt with outdoor patios, convenient ashtrays and understanding bouncers willing to let smokers come and go as needed.
“It really was not too big of a problem for us,” she said. “If New York and San Francisco can do it, it really isn’t going to hurt anybody to step outside and take a puff.”Smoking ban advocates have pointed to studies that found either no change or growth in the restaurant and bar industry after indoor smoking was banned in places such as California, Delaware and New York.U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona cited similar statistics in a report released this week that warned of the dangers of secondhand smoke and urged all consumers to visit smoke-free businesses.”It’s very clear that smoke-free air is good for health and good for business,” said Bronson Frick, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights.But Meersman disagrees, saying the studies show averages, now how individual bars or restaurants change, and fail to account for declining or booming economic conditions.”I don’t believe any of the studies, whether pro or con, good or bad, factor in what was going on anyway in that particular location,” he said.
Ford added that many studies lump restaurants and bars together, even though bars rely more heavily on alcohol sales for revenue. Ford also said his industry continued to rely on smokers for business, while Meersman said the majority of his organization’s members already were smoke-free.”What reason do we as bar and tavern owners have to fight something that we think is going to be good or that may be good for business?” he said. “We’re about doing what’s ultimately going to keep us around.”Don Gray, who has owned Gray’s Coors Tavern in Pueblo for 24 years, said bar owners who want to survive must adapt.”I’m bitter about a smoking ban, but I’ve accepted it,” he said, adding even he likes to be in the bar more without the smoke. “You just have to move on if you want to stay in the business and the industry.”His business is better than even, he said. Although alcohol sales have dropped 30 percent since Pueblo’s ban was enacted, the retired teacher compensated by spending more time at the business and increasing food sales, including his popular “sloppers” – hamburgers covered in green and red chili.He also built an outdoor patio for smokers.Gray just hopes government regulation ends with smoking: “The slopper is probably worse than the cigarette smoke,” he said.