State smoking ban flaming out some restaurants, igniting others
By: The Associated Press
The Messenger 12.31.07
By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — Rob Forsyth has watched more alcohol age behind his bar, more drinks go unmixed and more plates stay clean since Tennessee’s statewide smoking ban started.
He’s watched his wallet get thinner, too.
Forsyth, the day bartender at Sportsman’s Grille in Nashville’s trendy Hillsboro Village, said his income has been cut in half since the smoking ban became effective Oct. 1 and chased customers — and tips — away.
He’s not alone.
For every business that’s flourished under the ban, there’s another losing money because customers can’t light up. The losses have trickled down to employees like Forsyth, who have continued to spark debate.
“The smoking ban is hypocritical,” Forsyth said. “They’re growing tobacco all over the state, yet they want to tell people they can’t smoke. The ban is the worst thing that’s ever happened to the restaurant business. I have bills to pay, but can’t.”
Gov. Phil Bredesen signed the law in June to extinguish most workplace smoking in Tennessee. The ban applies to most offices and businesses, including restaurants.
Some exceptions to the law include businesses employing no more than three workers, retail tobacco stores and places with garage doors.
But what’s caused the most uproar is an exemption for bars and restaurants that prohibit people under 21 years old.
Tennessee Restaurant Associ-ation President and CEO Ronnie Hart said he is lobbying for the 21-and-up exemption to be eliminated because too many owners are not following the “spirit of the law.”
He said it’s also cost some employees their jobs, as the exemption doesn’t allow the businesses using it to employ anyone under 21.
“It’s unfair that we have the exemptions that we do,” Hart said. “It creates a very unlevel playing field. If a restaurant doesn’t allow smoking, it has to compete against one that does.”
The Tennessee Department of Health, which enforces the law with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the state doesn’t track the number of businesses that have switched to 21-and-up since the ban started.
Department of Health spokeswoman Andrea Turner said the agency will make sure businesses adhere to the restrictions during the two annual inspections if they change.
Based on complaints he has heard, Hart said a growing number of establishments are switching to the age restriction to accommodate smokers, drawing away the customers of family restaurants that can’t change.
Ashley Boggs Williams, vice president of the Huey’s restaurant chain in Memphis, said sales are down significantly in the seven Memphis-area locations because of the smoking ban.
“It has greatly hurt our sales. It’s killing us, actually,” Williams said. “We are down 15 to 30 percent in most of our stores. And this is going to continue unless something changes.”
Not all 21-and-up restaurants say they’re profiting at the expense of others.
“It hasn’t helped or hurt us,” said Steve Edmundson, owner of Memphis restaurant Kudzu’s, where smoking is still prohibited. “I don’t think we’re getting any customers from bars that don’t allow smoking.”
The ban has helped in other ways, though.
State Health Commissioner Susan Cooper said in early December that adult smoking rates in Tennessee have dropped from 26.7 percent last year to 22.6 percent this year.
That decrease moved Tennessee from having the third highest smoking rate in the country to No. 10.
And even with the complaints, plenty of restaurants and bars have had steady business without restricting their clientele to those 21 and older.
Marshall West, manager of Barley’s in Knoxville, said the restaurant hasn’t seen any changes since the ban. He said Barley’s didn’t switch to an age limit, but having a patio where customers can smoke has helped.
“It hasn’t affected our business at all,” West said. “Our numbers are the same as any other year. It really hasn’t been a big deal.”
Hart said while he and the Tennessee Restaurant Association are mounting an effort to abolish the 21-and-up exemption, it’s still too early to tell if the smoking ban will cause long-term problems.
“As time goes on, these things tend to sort themselves out,” Hart said. “People have their favorite places, and they’ll go back to them. It’s kind of like opening a new restaurant in a neighborhood. It’s a big deal at first, and then it eventually becomes the norm.”