SMOKE SCREAM: Eatery owners fear passage of I-901

Stacy Potter-Winchester, general manager at the Slo Pitch Pub & Casino, said she fears that if I-901 is passed, a huge portion of her customer base could move to the tribal casinos, which are not included in the scope of the initiative.

J.J. Jensen

   Imagine going out to a restaurant or bar and not being allowed to smoke in or near the establishment.
To some, the thought is a dream come true. To others, it’s a nightmare.
   Coming soon, it could be reality — as a proposed statewide smoking ban will go before voters on the Nov. 8 ballot.
   Initiative 901, sponsored by Bellingham doctor Chris Covert-Bowlds, seeks to amend the Clean Indoor Air Act by expanding smoking prohibitions, including banning smoking in all restaurants, bars and non-tribal casinos. The measure, among other things, also aims to ban smoking within 25 feet of entryways to public places.
   While many Whatcom County establishments are already of the non-smoking variety, or are amenable to the idea, others, such as some bars and taverns, cater heavily to smokers and fear financial repercussions if smoking is snuffed out.
   “It potentially could put us out of business — it could hurt that much,” said Mike Reilly, manager at Ferndale’s Cedars Tavern, where an estimated 50 percent of customers smoke.
   Businesses like the Cedars, which also has several card tables, could be impacted the most by the initiative, said Reilly, a Ferndale city councilman, because of one major reason: The measure doesn’t extend to tribal casinos.
   “It’s not a fair playing field,” he said.
   Stacy Potter-Winchester, general manager at the Slo Pitch Pub & Casino, shares similar concerns.
   About 80 percent of the Slo Pitch’s patrons smoke, she estimates, and, without the opportunity to smoke there, probably half of those people would go to the tribal casinos to gamble.
   “We have three Native American casinos within 20 miles of here,” she said. “I think initially it would hurt us quite a bit. I’m hoping people would get used to it and come back, but it could put us out of business. We have 80 employees, so that would hurt a lot of people.”
   If the Slo Pitch were to close, Potter-Winchester said, the city’s coffers would likely be a little lighter as a result.
   Including gambling, card-room, pull-tab and B&O taxes, she said, the Slo Pitch pays more than $200,000 a year in taxes to the city.
   Also irking Potter-Winchester is the measure’s 25-foot provision.
   Allowing smoking next to buildings currently accommodates smokers, she said. If the initiative passes, not only would that option be taken away, but there would be issues with enforcement, such as who’d be responsible for it.
   “We don’t have anywhere people could go to smoke,” she said. “They’d have to go into the parking lot and I don’t think the owner of Sunset Square would really like that.”
   Kris Halterman, co-owner of 20th Century Bowling, believes the initiative strips business owners of some of their rights.
   Business owners, she said, should be able to determine for themselves how they handle smoking issues.
   At 20th Century, she said, to accommodate everyone, there’s currently a Tuesday-night non-smoking league and no smoking during the day on weekends, to cater to families.
   “I’d rather they allowed private industry to manage this on their own,” Halterman said.
   Also, if non-smokers don’t want to go into smoking establishments, she said, they simply should stay out.
   “No one’s ever forced somebody to go into an establishment,” she said.
Covert-Bowlds, I-901’s sponsor, said the initiative’s focus is on public health, not controlling business owners.
   “Everyone should be protected equally from secondhand smoke and be able to work in a smoke-free workplace,” he said.
   He also added that the initiative didn’t include tribal casinos because it wouldn’t be possible to make them comply.
   “We can’t force them to adopt this because tribes are sovereign nations,” he said.
   Despite their opposition to the initiative, many business owners of smoking establishments say they’re confident the measure will pass.
   Statistics compiled by the Whatcom County Health Department show non-smokers greatly outnumber smokers.
   In Whatcom County, according to the Health Department, only 17.3 percent of adults smoke; statewide only 19.8 percent of adults smoke.
   Some business owners of non-smoking bars and restaurants say moving to a non-smoking environment seems scary but, ultimately, doesn’t impact business too profoundly, and has other benefits too.
   Tom Kilpatrick, owner of the Hilltop Restaurant, known for decades as a smoker’s haven, moved to a non-smoking atmosphere two years ago, after employees and owners weighed the pros and cons of working in a smoking environment.
   At first, after making the switch, he didn’t notice much of a change in business. But, after a few months, he started noticing more customers.
   “Thousands of people around Whatcom County knew we were a smoking restaurant, but, as they found out we weren’t anymore, they began to come back,” he said. “There were some people in the past who came and liked the food but said they wouldn’t come again because they didn’t like the smoke. We took away one reason that might have been keeping them away.”
   Officials at establishments like the Hilltop, and Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro, said their decisions to be non-smoking, in part, stemmed from a general trend in society toward fewer people smoking.
   “The marketing decision centered around only about 20 percent of adults smoking,” Kilpatrick said. “Would you rather try to attract eight out of 10 people or two out of 10?”

Local voters are in favor of Initiative 901. These results were taken from a recent BBJ-Online poll.

   Janet Lightner, general manager at Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro said, “I empathize with business owners but I hope people understand they don’t live and die off their smoking clientele and that they’re going to be OK.”
   In Whatcom County, 224 of 281 restaurants/bars are smoke-free, according to the Health Department.
   Working in a non-smoking environment can also be more pleasant and healthier for employees, Lightner said.
   “I’ve worked in places where smoking is allowed and your clothes have a lingering smell of cigarettes,” she said. “That wasn’t your choice, it was a part of your environment. With smoking, there are issues with clothes, health, and aesthetics. (With non-smoking) it’s a cleaner environment, healthwise.”
   Covert-Bowlds said nine other states, such as California and New York, have similar smoking laws, and businesses haven’t suffered.
   Kearsten Shepherd, a spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association, said there’s been a statewide smoking ban in California since 1998 and “we don’t believe (it’s) had an effect on business.”
   Anthony Anton, vice president of the Washington Restaurant Association, which doesn’t officially oppose the initiative, but has concerns with it, said the initiative’s passage appears likely.
   “Unfortunately, extremes on both sides of the issue killed attempts at any middle ground,” he said. “(Restaurants) need to look at their clientele base. We’re in the business of taking care of our customers, that’s what we do. Going non-smoking may create some opportunities they never knew they had before. Community places are still community places and that’s really where mom and pop businesses have advantages.”
   Travis Holland, owner of the Horseshoe Restaurant, is one business owner already preparing for the possibility of going to a non-smoking environment.
   Recently, he’s been taking steps to improve the quality of the restaurant’s food so more people are aware of the Horseshoe’s offerings beside drinking and smoking.
   “I don’t think people will stop drinking in bars just because smoking is banned,” he said. “As much as I’m against this, if it passes, we’re going to really aggressively go after that non-smoking dining business. There’s probably some opportunities we’re missing now because the Horseshoe is a smoking place.
   “There’s no assurance we’ll survive the change. We think our 21- to 29-year-old market still wants to go out and won’t let the party end just because they can’t smoke indoors. We’re more worried about our older customers because they might just choose to drink and smoke at home or a friend’s house.”
   The Hilltop’s Kilpatrick, who’s made a successful switch to non-smoking, said the key to keeping and attracting customers is to accentuate the business’ strengths.
   “Do what you do best, which is cooking food, serving people and providing a friendly atmosphere,” he said. “That’s what keeps people coming back.”

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