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On the effect of smoking bans

Last month, when talk of a wider smoking ban in Houston surfaced, I asked if the controversial no-smoking law that was passed in Austin last year by referendum had had the negative effect on bars that its detractors had predicted. The Statesman addressed that question yesterday (link via BOR).

The smoking ban stirred an avalanche of anger when voters approved it in May 2005. It went into effect in September 2005. A year later, according to interviews at several bars, the furor is dying down, replaced by enthusiasm or a grudging acceptance among bar patrons and employees.

Austin bars’ alcohol sales have dipped more than liquor sales at bars have on average statewide since the ban began, according to alcohol-tax data from the state comptroller’s office. The alcohol sales average for Austin bars has dropped each month since the ban started, compared with the same months in the previous year, before it took effect. Live-music venues seem to have fared better, with some months showing an increase.

“The doom-and-gloom, sky-is-falling scenarios have not happened,” said Rodney Ahart, who campaigned for the ban as the government relations director for the Austin chapter of the American Cancer Society. “All you have to do is walk down Sixth Street or Second and Third Street, and you see people out enjoying Austin.”

Don’t tell that to Mickey Leathers, who runs a small neighborhood bar, Mickey’s Thirsty I Lounge, on North Lamar Boulevard. He says the ban has hurt local hangouts like his, which are removed from the bar-hopping scene downtown and are closer to Travis County or Williamson County bars that can siphon away customers because they allow smoking.

The ban “is killing the small places,” he said. “My business is going down the tubes.”

[…]

George Macias, a friend of [smoker Sandi] Laird’s, plays guitar in the band the Regulars at the Saxon Pub. Since the ban began, he has seen more families coming to shows – although he said it is a nuisance to step outside for a smoke.

Bar manager Darryl Hoag said that some musicians have complained about not being able to smoke onstage but that a few bands who would not play there in the past because it was too smoky have since agreed to.

The ban “hasn’t really hurt us,” Hoag said. “Originally, the new people who said they would come out and support live music really didn’t. The good thing is that (our customers) who smoke did not go away.”

Most bars and live-music clubs pay a monthly 14 percent mixed-beverage tax to the state, which is one way to assess how they have fared under the ban.

A comparison of tax records from September 2005 through June 2006 (the most recent data available) with the same 10 months in the previous year shows that the average amount of alcohol taxes paid by bars citywide has dropped 4.6 percent. The average taxes paid by bars statewide decreased 3.4 percent during that time. The average amount of alcohol taxes paid by Austin live-music venues has dipped less than 1 percent, and some clubs, including Beerland, Antone’s and Emo’s, had an increase.

[…]

Leathers said he has had to fire one of his four employees and is now making $100 a day instead of the usual $500 to $700 – not enough to break even. Most of his customers smoke, he said, and he still lets them. “If I didn’t have smokers here, I wouldn’t have anybody here,” he said. “It’s just a small neighborhood bar. Nobody bothers nobody. We’ve got a domino table and a pool table, and they just relax. Twenty or 30 of my customers come here every day.”

He has paid $150 in health department fines for violating the smoking ban and is trying to sell the bar, which he has owned for 16 years.

Nick Alexander, owner of the two Clicks Billiards locations, said pool halls and sports bars are suffering the most. “If you’re a smoker and you go into a nonsmoking restaurant, you leave an hour later and smoke then. But smokers who come in to watch football or play pool, they want to stay there for several hours.”

He installed expensive filtration systems to cut down on secondhand smoke and thinks that should be enough.

So in short, it’s not been an apocalypse, many bars have found ways to adapt, but some of those that can’t adjust so easily are definitely hurting. Not much new business from previously averse smoke-o-phobes, but not much dropoff from the smoke-o-philes, either.

A less sanguine view of life after a more comprehensive smoking ban comes from the Houston Press’ Racket column.

[T]his about-face has Rudyard’s owner Lelia Rodgers hopping mad. “I’m furious with the restaurant association,” she says. “They pressure bars to join up with them, and then they screw us all the time. This new thing: ‘Oh, we’re behind the ban, as long as bars are included.’ Man, they’re such jerks.”

Mike Bell, the proprietor of both the bar The Next Door and the restaurant Late Nite Pie, agrees with Rodgers about the proposed ban. He believes that bars already have enough crap to deal with, without having to worry about whether customers are lighting up. “So now they want it so people can’t smoke?” he asks. “They’ve already gotta worry about getting a DWI if they have two beers. Would going out be worth it?”

I called Rodgers because no club is more bitched about by nonsmokers than Rudyard’s. On a typical night, the performance area combines a few dozen of the most dedicated nicotine fiends the Montrose has to offer with one of the lowest ceilings in town, and the result is a perfect storm you could probably spot on Doppler radar if it were outside. While these toxic clouds add to the visual ambience, the air does get a wee bit close in there. (Full disclosure: Racket is a social smoker, meaning I only light up when I drink. Insert the “Well, he must smoke two packs a day” jokes here.)

But Rodgers is in a bind. She can’t raise the roof, and she is forbidden by the city to open the windows upstairs. She’s thought about drastically ramping up the air circulation with some attic fans, but she says that her summer electric bills are already running close to $5,000 a month.

A couple of years back, she and Bell, whose bar is adjacent to Rudyard’s (hence the name) built sidewalk patios so the abstainers would have somewhere to go, but if present trends continue, that’s where all the smokers will be. Rodgers doesn’t really relish that prospect. “I hate the idea of Rudz being empty while the patios are flooded with all these smokers hanging off the edge smoking, but I think it’s gonna come to that.”

More important, Rodgers believes that the proposed ban violates some pretty basic rights of hers. “On the one hand, there’s this law that says I have the right to serve whoever I choose,” she says. “So why can’t I choose to serve smokers? If nonsmokers don’t like it, they can go somewhere else, because I choose not to serve them. I don’t understand why everyone has to comply with this nonsmoking world, especially when there’s lots of nonsmoking options.”

Such options aren’t perfectly fluid, of course. If all one cared about was a pint of beer, then sure, one bar is as good as the next. But if one’s favorite musical act is in town and only playing at Rudz, well, your options are suffer through the smoke or miss out completely. Which is not to say that legislation is the right answer, of course. No one ever said life is fair, after all.

The anti-smoking crowd likes to think of itself as some kind of sleeping giant — that if the ban is enacted, the bars would be crawling with people like them who shun the places now because they don’t like the smell or fear the health risks. They also love to point out that cities like Austin, San Francisco and New York that have bans in place also have much livelier music scenes than Houston, and imply that a ban here is all that it would take to transform H-town into the next Seattle.

That’s a misstatement of the anti-smoking position. They’re not saying that having a smoking ban will turn Houston into a live music nirvana. They’re saying that having a smoking ban will not turn Houston into a live music wasteland. Based on the experience of Austin so far, I’d say it’s hard to argue with that contention.

These are nice theories, but in a recent interview with Austin radio station KUT, country guitarist Redd Volkaert and steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar both said it most decidedly wasn’t the case in Austin. “All the lyin’ nonsmokers said they would come to the clubs if they passed the law,” Volkaert said. “None of ’em have ever showed up.” Cashdollar added that several Austin venues have started cutting pay to musicians because their booze sales had dropped because of smokers staying home. And bands had responded by downsizing from quintets and quartets to trios and duos.

In the same KUT story, reporter David Brown noted that many of the clubs on Sixth Street and the Red River strip in Austin were now shuttered early in the week. For bars everywhere, Sundays through Wednesdays have always been a razor’s edge profit-wise, but if you take the smoker out of the mix, the owners say, it’s not worth it to open. And without these graveyard shifts at the clubs, I might add, where are beginning bands supposed to learn their live chops and earn their followings?

Obviously, this is not what the Statesman reported. I may have to hunt down that KUT story and see if there’s more detail in it, because this isn’t enough for a sound basis of comparison.

If the effects have been that bad in the (self-described) Live Music Capital of the World, how bad would it get here? Sure, some clubs could build outdoor smoking areas, but what about those that don’t have the option? And what about the joints that are in sketchy ‘hoods — I’m a big guy, but I don’t know how comfortable I’d be smoking after midnight outside the Meridian or the Proletariat.

Um, if you’re worried about being out on the patio for a smoke at those places after midnight, might you not also be worried about returning to your car later on? At least when you’re out smoking you’re right outside the place and will have some hope of being heard if you get jumped. Rudz isn’t in the world’s worst neighborhood, but as often as not I have to park a block or so away because their lot is so tiny. I guarantee you, it’s safer right in front of the place than it is farther out where you’re by yourself. This is a bogus objection.

[A]s Mike Bell points out, you could help encourage City Hall to enact legislation similar to that in Dallas. “Up there, they have a ban on smoking completely, everywhere, but the liability goes on the customer, not the bar. So if someone is sitting at your bar and they wanna smoke a cigarette, you have to hand them an ashtray and tell them, ‘Look, if an officer comes in here, it’s a $500 fine.’ And the customer goes, ‘Okay, do I wanna take that risk or not?’ And if he gets caught, the smoker gets a $500 ticket and the bar gets nothing. Leave it up to the customers — if they want to take the $500 gamble, more power to ’em. Don’t threaten the bar on it. We’re already threatened enough. We’ve got to watch our back everywhere we look.”

I’d be willing to explore this as a compromise. I’m not sure how well this would work in practice, but I can sympathize with the bar owners on this. Anyone from Dallas want to comment on how well that law works up there? Thanks.

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3 Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    I feel for the bar owners to some degree, but I play at Rudz often and go there to see bands even more frequently. I have a total love-hate relationship with the place. As a musician, it’s one of the best places to play in town for live sound, ambiance and size.

    As a non-smoker, playing in that place usually makes me ill the next day and I try to spend as much time in the back stairwell before shows and outside in between sets for bands because it makes me sick to sit in all that smoke.

    Maybe some of those who say they’d go out more often are lying, but I’m not. I would definitely spend more time seeing bands than I do already, which is quite a bit, if I didn’t have to inhale the smoke.

    Places like Mucky Duck and Ovation’s that don’t allow smoking are SO much more pleasant to both play in and patronize.

  2. Kevin Whited says:

    They’re saying that having a smoking ban will not turn Houston into a live music wasteland. Based on the experience of Austin so far, I’d say it’s hard to argue with that contention.

    Actually, I think it’s a mistake to generalize one way or the other about Houston’s music scene based on Austin’s music scene. They are completely different. Austin is a live music city. You could just about nuke the place, and there would be great live music and listeners. Houston, eh, not so much. It’s more of an outpost.

    I think Lomax exaggerates the impact of a smoking ban, but it could be enough to squeeze some of the local venues.

  3. I agree with Kevin. In addition, Austin has Sixth Street, where bars go under all the time and are replaced three weeks later with a new bar, which may or may not play the same bands.

    We see shows in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. NYC and all of NJ have a smoking ban and it’s a lot more pleasant to go to those shows. Of course we still go to shows where there’s smoking if that’s our only shot at a band we want to see, so we aren’t the “I would if there was a ban” crowd. We just used to suffer.

    Marginal venues that don’t have much to offer in terms of creative bookings, ambiance, or filling a niche are likely to be the ones hurt by a band. On the one hand, good. They were the ones I didn’t go to anyway, unless I happened to really want to see a band. On the other hand, not so good. Even crappy venues (usually) pay bands to play, and the more of them out there competing for the bands, the more bands can be supported.

    I’m intrigued by the Dallas option, but I don’t really favor the “here’s your ashtray, wink, wink. If the cops show up, you get fined, wink, wink” possibility. Cop comes in and there’s an ashtray full of butts on the bar, and two guys say “that’s not mine”, does anyone get fined?