Top 10 2006: Smoking and Drinking Regulations Change

by James Gordon  on Monday, Dec. 25, 2006 12:00 am  

Successes in two separate crusades — one in favor of a so-called sin and one against another — resulted in shifts in state and local laws that affected Arkansas' restaurant and hospitality industries in 2006.
At issue in both cases were seemingly conflicting concerns about economic and public health.
First, the Clean Indoor Air Act banned smoking across the state from all but a few indoor public spaces and indoor workplaces. Exemptions were allowed for bars whose patrons were all 21 and over, businesses with three or fewer employers, tobacco stores, nursing homes, hotels with more than 25 rooms (only 20 percent of which can be smoking), Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis.
The act passed in March during a special legislative session. Lame-duck Gov. Mike Huckabee, having recently garnered national attention for the publication of his weight-loss book, campaigned heavily in favor of the law, linking it to his Healthy Arkansas initiative.
Restaurant, bar and hotel owners, however, criticized the law, saying it would drag down sales. After the law was enacted in July, Arkansas Business compared Little Rock's and North Little Rock's restaurant sales receipts and discovered a plateau in the year-over-year growth of August sales enjoyed by both cities for the past three to five years.
But Dr. Joe Thompson, Arkansas' chief health officer, said the slowdown in sales could just as easily be attributed to other factors, like the summer's high gas prices. In a column published in Arkansas Business, he cited data from the University of Arkansas' Sam Walton School of Business indicating that Fayetteville restaurants had enjoyed higher sales since passing a smoking ban ordinance in 2004.
For or against, policymakers and industry insiders said that, if the law were to change at all in the next year, it would likely only become stricter, allowing fewer exemptions.
On the flip side, Marion County went from wet to dry, thanks to a ballot initiative put forth by a small group of residents organized by Justice of the Peace Jim Wilson Jr.
Wilson said he hoped that allowing restaurants and stores to sell alcohol would inject new revenue into those establishments and help revitalize Marion County's downtown eco-nomies, much like private club permits in downtown Conway restaurants seemed to spark recent redevelopment efforts there.
But first Wilson had to complete the monumental task of collecting signatures from 38 percent of voters registered in Marion County. Since the county had about only 10,000 registered voters, Wilson and his helpers had to gather nearly 4,000 signatures, which they did.
Still, opponents encouraged people to vote against the initiative, arguing that a wet Marion County would suffer from more drunk-driving incidents and deaths.
Those predictions were disputed by statistics published in an October Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, which showed that one is more likely be killed in a car crash while driving in a dry county than driving in a wet county.
On Election Day the initiative passed with 3,600 for and 2,487 against.
At last count, 68 Marion County businesses had submitted applications for liquor licenses.
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