Will a St. Louis smoking ban help Monroe County bars?

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When Illinois barred smoking in almost all public places in January 2008, most bars and restaurants saw sales slump. Some smokers flocked west to Missouri taverns, where smoking is still allowed.

“It cost us $111,000 in alcohol sales,” said Jerry Cooke, one of the owners of the Pontoon Beach bar Mac and Mick’s, where sales took at hit following the new rule. “The year before we came close to almost $1 million in alcohol sales, and when the smoking law went into effect, we immediately started dropping each month.”

Now, some are questioning whether a proposed smoking ban in St. Louis County will further restrict where Metro East smokers can light up, possibly sending them back to local bars and restaurants as fewer and fewer areas allow smoking.

Illinois Licensed Beverage Association Executive Director Dan Clausner, whose group represents several hundred restaurant and bar owners, said any restriction on smoking in nearby St. Louis County could help businesses in Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties. Still, his group strongly opposes any ban.

It “may benefit some members, but we still feel that the principal of mandatory smoking bans is wrong,” Clausner said.

Exactly how businesses will be impacted is unclear.

The proposal the St. Louis County Council approved last week is not as extensive as the Illinois ban. It exempts casinos, smoking lounges at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and drinking establishments where income from food is 25 percent or less of gross income.

It also only applies to the county, not the city of St. Louis, which has a larger concentration of bars closer to the Illinois border. However, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen has been discussing a ban that would go into effect should the county pass a similar measure. County voters will decide on the measure in November.

Health advocates have praised St. Louis County officials for advancing the limits. Backers also theorize that a limit on smoking will actually draw more businesses as nonsmokers head back to bars and restaurants, blunting any significant loses.

Bob Haluch, of Collinsville, said the rules make sense. A nonsmoker, he avoid bars and restaurants where the smoke is thick.

“The smoking ban is good for business,” he said last week, sitting on the patio at Zapata’s Mexican Restaurant in Collinsville. “There are a lot of nonsmokers like myself that enjoy the nonsmoking environment,” he said.

Impact of Illinois restrictions unclear

The effects of the Illinois smoking ban are debatable, however. Some local bars report no lasting impact, while others have closed. It’s also impossible to know how many have fled the area for smoker-friendly Missouri.

“It didn’t really affect us that much. I didn’t see a huge decline, because we do have an outdoor patio that people can use,” said Seanin Heinen, a manager at Tiny’s, a bar on North Main Street in Columbia.

“At first it was a little tough,” she added. “People weren’t coming out, then people got cabin fever and then everybody started coming back out. People need to be social. Maybe they can’t smoke inside, but they can go outside.”

Fairview Heights Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Scott Leas said the Illinois ban initially hurt because it was a “shock” to patrons. But they have since come back, Leas said.

He also said Fairview Heights restaurants and bars didn’t lose large numbers to Missouri, and would probably not benefit greatly from a ban there.

“It’s been a cultural change, but people have adjusted,” he said.

The impact on Illinois bars and restaurant, it seems, is mostly tied to location.

Areas closest to states that allow smoking took the biggest hit, said Clausner, the trade group official, as smoking patrons simply switched bars. Statewide, the Metro East and Lake County on the Wisconsin border have been the most impacted by the rule, he said.

Businesses with patios for smoking have also fared well. Tiny’s, for example, had an outdoor area when the Illinois ban went into effect in January.

“It was wintertime. Who wants to go outside and stand in snow?” Heinen said.

Mac and Mick’s, on the other hand, was more seriously impacted. It closed in May in large because of the drop in business started 20 months ago. “One of the big reasons was the smoking ban,” Cooke said.

He said limits in St. Louis County could bring some of those customers back to the area.

“That was the whole issue. If they were doing it over there we wouldn’t have the problems we’ve had,” said Cooke, who is opening a new bar in Granite City on Sept. 9.

“I think we’ll do pretty well,” Cooke said. “Already today I’ve seen three Missouri plates drive right here and turn around. We see quite a bit coming back here to see if we’re open.”

How patrons see the possible smoking ban

Sitting at the bar can mean a lot of things, but for the past 20 months in Illinois, it’s meant that people didn’t have to change their clothes in the garage any more.

One of the results of the smoking ban is that clothes don’t “reek” after a night out, many bar regulars said.

Sitting at the bar at Tiny’s, a neighborhood bar and restaurant in Columbia, patrons Doug Gool, Robert Valenzuela, Gary May, and his wife, Tammy Prater-May, talked about the effects of the ban one afternoon last week.

“Reek” was the most common word they used to describe the combination of bars and cigarettes.

May, who also tends bar at nearby Turner Hall, a private facility, said he likes the ban..

“When they had smoking, I’d go home, take my shirt and pants off, and throw them outside because they stunk so bad,” he said.

Prater-May added that they have avoided some Missouri businesses because of the smoke.

“I’ve been in other places in South County or St. Louis where we walked in and just came out reeking of smoke. It’s nice to go into places and not smell like that when you leave,” she said.

Patron Robert Valenzuela said there were “pros and cons.”

“We do have a lot of friends who come here who smoke,” he said. “They do appreciate the fact to that even though they are smokers, they don’t have to wash their clothes every night, or take them off in the ground.”

He also said it has been a money-saver.

“I do a lot of dry cleaning,” Valenzuela said, “so my expenses have been cut back a lot.”

source: http://suburbanjournals.stltoday.com/

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