Features

Nipped in the butt

Regulation | Smoking bans take aim at Big Tobacco but often hit the little guy

Issue: "No way out," May 13, 2006

EVERETT, Wash.-Less than a dozen cars speckled the parking lot outside the White Elephant Bar and Grill on a recent Saturday night in this growing Seattle suburb. Inside, most booths and tables sat empty while two electronic dart boards hung unused on the side wall. A handful of customers encircled the restaurant's lone pool table, sipping beers and conversing easily at normal volume levels. Owners John and Donna Kerns leaned on the end of a deserted bar and watched helplessly as their once buzzing establishment choked to a slow death on its clean, smoke-free air.

So it is for thousands of after-hours entertainment spots nationwide struggling to survive a recent spike in state smoking bans. All but two of the 13 states to outlaw cigarettes in bars and restaurants have done so within the past five years. It's a trend that leading anti-smoking fundraiser the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation celebrates as progress in its war on "big corporate tobacco."

But there is nothing big or corporate about the White Elephant. For 54 years, the humble business has carved out a niche among blue-collar workers and amateur singers, providing a festive hub for recreation and karaoke. Six months ago, that hub teemed with activity, drawing several thousand people on any given weekend. Now, business is down more than 50 percent. The Kernses, both in their 60s, have laid off employees and significantly trimmed their hours of operation.

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"It's depressing to watch your business dwindle down to nothing," Mrs. Kerns said. "It's a legal product still on the market, and they're telling me to kick my customers out in the cold and rain to have a cigarette. We live in Washington. It's wet here."

The Washington smoking ban, voted into law last November, is the most radical in the country, outlawing cigarette use within 25 feet of public place doors, windows, and entryways-often pushing smokers out from under the shelter of overhangs. The ban does not apply to tribal lands, however, providing Native American casinos a smoker-friendly monopoly.

Implementation has received mixed reviews, with some restaurant owners reporting a slight increase in business as they attract more non-smokers and families. Rob Paulson, owner of the Wedgwood Ale House in Seattle, is thankful for the ban as it spared him the brunt of criticism in converting to a smoke-free dining room-an environment he prefers. "A lot of my staff and a whole bunch of my best clientele are smokers," he said. "I would have been the bad guy. It would have been pretty traumatic."

But even Mr. Paulson admits harboring reservations about such state interference with the rights of private businesses. No one was ever forced to patronize a smoker-friendly bar or restaurant, and the number of smoke-free establishments had steadily climbed to match customer demand. That citizens elected to circumvent the free market-voting out tobacco with their ballots instead of their wallets-betrays a growing belief that government should protect majority preferences over individual liberty.

New Jersey became the latest state to affirm that maxim last month with the implementation of its Smoke-Free Air Act, legislation banning smoking in all indoor public places and private workplaces. Several other states are considering similar bans. Forty-six states now feature at least some restrictions on smoking in public places, suggesting a modern-day prohibition could loom on the horizon.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation president Risa Lavizzo-Mourey has made clear her desire to see every city, county, and state in the country legislate a smoke-free environment. She points to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying that cigarette smoke is responsible for 38,000 deaths each year.

Supporters of anti-smoking laws further contend that secondhand smoke victimizes restaurant workers who cannot afford to quit their jobs and seek out smoke-free employment. But White Elephant bartender Jim Harcrow, 32, says he doesn't need the state to make health decisions for him. He needs a job: "I'd rather deal with a bar full of smoke and get paid than work 18 hours a week and have to stand in line to get food stamps."

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