Opinion Writing

Smoke Ban in Bloomington Bars

Arindam Mukherjee

The ban on smoking in public places in Bloomington is tough. It doesn’t give an inch of smoking space to smokers in bars and social clubs. The embargo, to the dislike of bar punters who also like to smoke, threatens to hurt the city businesses that have allowed smoking in the past. Anyone who thinks that you have to smoke while you drink, on account of how a drink is slightly too wet and a cigarette is slightly too dry, will have to take it outside or to your own front rooms.

Let’s shed some light to the debate about health-related issues with secondhand smoking. To be honest, it is pretty vague. Tons of data have been crunched indicating passive smoking risks to public health, but none quantify the risks involved.
The ordinance passed by the Bloomington Council states that the ban “is designed to protect the public health and welfare of the community from health hazards induced by breathing secondhand smoke including lung cancer, heart disease and respiratory infections.”

Consider this recent study published in the weekly British Medical Journal: “The association between (passive smoke) and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed.” To add to that, the study was backed by an anti-smoking crusader Elizabeth Whelan, an epidemiologist and president of the American Council on Science and Health.

The New York Post quoted Whelan as saying: “There is simply no convincing evidence linking secondhand smoke to lung cancer and heart disease.”

In her book, A Smoking Gun: How the Cigarette Industry Gets Away with Murder, Whelan mentions that exposure to cigarettes has “definite, acute health effects” - such as ear infections, respiratory problems and asthma. But she estimated the deaths prevented by the New York City’s smoking ban would be "between zero and a hypothetical 10 to 15" - and the deaths would likely be from asthma attacks.

For some, the issue is an economic one. Some owners have argued that a smoking ban would hurt business. Others say no-smoking rules attract more customers and protect employees.

“We cannot tell right now but the ban will affect the flow of customers,” said Barnes.

“We’ll have to see after the ban is in place.”

“The smokers won’t be left with any choice,” said Dave. “All bars will have the same ban, so I think it won’t hurt the business that much.”

News from smoke-free New York doesn’t say much about the decrease in health risks, but it does indicate a downturn in bar business. Meanwhile, the ban in New York City has become a boon for bars and restaurant in neighboring states. Similarly, how does it make the ban look if patrons have the option of going to county bars outside the city? Common sense says that will definitely hurt Bloomington’s business. It would be interesting to see how the ban affects the Monroe County’s bar business.

“It’s all for a good cause,” said Tony Pizzo, a pathologist in town who has led the brigade against smoking in public places. The good part: Passive smokers won’t have to take it anymore in Bloomington bars. The sad part: The ban also infringes on the legal right of a person to smoke a cigarette.

Bloomington had banned smoking a decade ago in all new public buildings and in businesses that changed owners. The new ordinance, passed on March 26, 2003, extends the ban to businesses that have continued to allow smoking. The panel, that passed the ordinance by an 8-1 vote, also gave private clubs and over-18 clubs extra time to comply. Come January 1, 2005, all bars, public places and social clubs will have to be smoke free. The typical penalty for non-compliance will be a $100 citation. But, fines could extend up to $500, said Pizzo.

By world standards, smokers in U.S. are grossly under-taxed. According to the Federation of Tax Administrators, Indiana taxes around 40 percent on a packet of cigarettes and is ranked at 28th in the list of tax rates in United States. Despite spending almost $2 billion in smoking related medical costs, the state collected just $117 million in cigarette tax revenue in 2000.

Let’s imagine that the ban was already in place and we are already in January 2005. What do you see? Do you see smokers huddled together for a smoke out in the cold, on streets, outside a bar, bowling alley or pool halls? Yes. The ban will not completely solve the problem of secondhand smoke, it will just move it out to the streets.

Secondly, what happens if you put dozens and dozens of smokers outside on streets, alleys, nooks and corners? Chaos. For sure.

“The club scene may heat up and sidewalks may turn into obstacle courses,” said Gabrielle Barnes who manages Kilroys, a bar on Kirkwood. “Mothers will rush their strollers through the fumes, conversations will get louder the later it gets. All that's usually happening inside (a busy club)... will pour out into the street.”

Smoking outside would also mean cleaning problems for businesses and the city. Where will all cigarette butts that were previously stubbed out in club ashtrays go? The white and flesh-colored stubs already make dirty the town’s sidewalks and porches. With the ban, one won’t be surprised when they will heavily dot public premises. Do we foresee another ordinance this time - to make compulsory both a policemen and a trash bin in front of restaurants?

“I wonder what our neighboring business would say when folks pour outside to smoke,” says Gerald Dave, who has been working in Upstairs Pub for 15 years.

Few bars and restaurants experimented with the ban for a few days. The result was they failed miserably – losing both customers and money. It forced them to look for loopholes in the ordinance to accommodate smoking patrons. They opted the no-under-18-year rule to accommodate smokers. Yogi's Grill and Bar and City Grille’s trial with the ban lasted 9 days. The Irish Lion and Crazy Horse also have decided to close their doors to families and keep smoking areas until 2005. The reluctance is there. So is the fear of losing both money and customers.

“Total ban” said Pizzo. “No smoking areas. Having that will cause harm to the workers.”
Bar owners disagree with Pizzo on this point. It is the choice of the worker to work in a place where people smoke, same as it is a non-smoker’s choice to keep away from that place, they say. The employers, on the other hand, include the occupational-hazard clause in their employee contracts when they sign in. Also, the city can ask the bars to have a separate ventilation system for smoking areas.

Meanwhile, a group of business owners in the city formed a group, Bloomington Businesses for the Preservation of Liberty, to oppose the proposal. In March this year, the Libertarian Party of Monroe County joined hands with them. The joint group’s objective: “The ban is an unfunded mandate that deprives adults of choice, and it infringes on private property rights.”

"We support small business owners' right to conduct their businesses intelligently," Party Chair Lisa Tennies told the council, as quoted in the party’s press release.

“We no longer smoke at all in movies, malls and airplanes,” said Jim Sherman, an Indiana University professor in psychology who is an expert on smoking among teenagers. “It won’t be different to now do the same in bars and restaurants.”

There are no figures available on how many smoking patrons frequent Bloomington bars. Dave of Upstairs Pub said that around 60 percent of the people who come to his restaurant like to smoke. Considering that, the ban will be to prevent a very large portion of bar goers from smoking. Tough job.

The city should get prepared to handle the ban very soon. To begin with, the council needs to rethink whether bars could still flourish well with a designated smoking area specifically for smoking patrons. Airports and railway stations have it. It should also allow workers by choice to work in smoking sections.

Secondly, the town should have stricter rules on the cleanliness of premises near bars and social clubs. Cigarette stubs found lying near public places should come with an appropriate fine.

Thirdly, the city will have to wait and watch how the ban takes it effects on this small college town, without hampering the city businesses.