Board of Health to Vote on Restaurant Smoking Ban

Studies funded by tobacco companies and smokers' rights groups say restaurant revenue plummets and many restaurants close after adoption of smoking bans such as the one the Arkansas Board of Health will vote on later this month.

But studies in California and Texas refute those claims.

The California Restaurant Association says food and drink sales increased 4.7 percent in 1994 to $24.5 billion, the year a statewide restaurant smoking ban went into effect, from $23.4 billion in 1992. In 1998, when the smoking ban was extended to bars, food and drink sales increased 12.5 percent to $30.05 billion. The number of eating and drinking establishments has also continued to grow.

A March 2000 study by the Texas Department of Health found that smoking bans adopted in Arlington, Austin, Plano and Wichita Falls in the mid-1990s had no detrimental effect. Only Arlington experienced a single quarter in which restaurant sells were not higher than in the same period the year before.

Montine McNulty, executive director of the Arkansas Restaurant Association, said the group opposes a smoking ban because the industry should regulate itself. Many restaurateurs, but not all, oppose the ban.

In January, the Board of Health voted 16-4 to adopt a smoking ban in establishments that generate more than 30 percent of their revenue from food. It has been subject to public comment and winded its way through two committees of the General Assembly for recommendations.

"We were all conditioned to believe this was going to kill restaurants and bars, but it just hasn't panned out that way," said Robert Brech, associate general counsel for the Arkansas Department of Health.

Brech said the Board of Health will consider July 26 the committees' recommendations and public comments. The board can either make changes or submit the current proposal to Gov. Mike Huckabee for his signature.

Opponents insist the ban is too broad because it bans smoking in all areas where patrons have general access, including outdoor patios, dining areas, food-order areas, food-service areas, restrooms, cashier areas and at bars that are not separate from the restaurant area. Restaurateurs could still allow smoking outdoors, as long as food is not served there.

While most restaurateurs interviewed didn't think a smoking ban would hurt business, most said they didn't think it was right for the government to impose a smoking policy.

"I should be able to make the decision as to whether or not customers can smoke," said Don Dugan, general manager of La Scala and the Afterthought in Little Rock's Hillcrest neighborhood. "If I'm not smart enough to keep up with my clientele's desire, that's my own failing."

La Scala has been smoke-free for 12 years. The neighboring Afterthought bar, which operates under the same food-service permit and liquor license, allows smoking.

Under the proposed ban, Brech said the Afterthought could allow smoking if it was operated under a separate food service permit. Such a permit cost $35. Dugan said he would have to operate it as a separate business, costing him about $2,500 a year in licenses and fees.

"That's a part-time job for somebody," he said.

Bryan Littleton, owner of seven Little B's Mexican Food and Steakhouses, said banning smoking in Arkansas would hurt his Texarkana restaurant.

"In Texarkana, most of the big chain restaurants are on the Texas side of the border. We already have a tough time competing with them. You ban smoking on the Arkansas side, and smoking customers will go to the Texas side," said Littleton, president-elect of the Arkansas Restaurant Association.

Mary Beth Ringgold, president of the companies that run Capers Restaurant and Anderson's Cajun's Wharf in Little Rock, said the ban on outdoor smoking would decrease sales at Cajun's Wharf.

"I don't smoke and I wish nobody in the world smoked, but I wish our customers could be the ones to tell us whether they want us to have smoking or not," Ringgold said.

Brent Peterson, owner of Trio's Restaurant and Catering on Cantrell Road in Little Rock, and some other restaurateurs support the smoking ban. Trio's has been smoke-free for 12 years.

"If no one can smoke anywhere, what are the smokers going to do? Not eat?" Peterson said. "I may lose a few customers who will only go where they can smoke. But if they can't smoke anywhere, they'll come back."