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Sunday, July 18, 2004

Smoking ban could hurt business



Bill Hatfield
Guest columnist

Cincinnati bar and restaurant owners, many still struggling to recover from the April 2001 riots, are now facing a potential economic knockout punch courtesy of City Hall.

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece, City Health Commissioner Dr. Malcolm Adcock and others have begun to explore the possibility of imposing a full smoking ban in all indoor public spaces, including bars and restaurants, at the urging of anti-smoking advocates. Without debating the health effects of such a ban, the economic effects could be devastating to many establishments.

Our city, in the last few months, has already seen the closing of at least half a dozen bars in the once-trendy Main Street entertainment district.

Unfortunately, these closings will only be the tip of the iceberg if a nonsmoking ordinance goes into effect. The simple truth is that many, if not most, smokers will take their business to a more smoke-friendly environment, and deny Cincinnati businesses badly needed revenue. Consequently, jobs will be lost, and the city will suffer from a corresponding loss of tax revenue.

The drop-off likely would affect jobs not only in the hospitality industry, but with vendors such as beer, wine and liquor distributors, vending machine operators, and those who install and maintain ventilation systems. The economic fallout will be widespread.

At a time when Cincinnati officials gaze enviously across the river, Northern Kentucky will once again gain in economic stature, as patrons who enjoy lighting up with their adult beverage or meal will encourage their friends and family to join them at Newport on the Levee or Mainstrasse. Also benefiting would be various suburbs throughout Hamilton County that have expressed no interest in enacting such a ban.

Studies from other jurisdictions widely differ on their conclusions as to the economic harm caused by a smoking ban, but all agree that the hardest-hit businesses are those near the affected border. People from the city will continue to eat and drink, but smokers will no longer stay in Cincinnati to do so.

Some suggest that more people will visit a restaurant or bar if they know that they will not be bothered by secondhand smoke. That may be true at "family" restaurants, but no one can tell me that suburban soccer moms will all of a sudden now decide to start bar-hopping on a Saturday night at midnight.

Many niche bars and restaurants will simply see a decline in the volume of their clientele, affecting already low profit margins. Many restaurants are already smoke-free at the decision of the business owner. It should be the right of every businessperson to decide whether to allow smoking in their place of business, just as it is the right of every individual to decide whether to patronize an establishment based on its smoking policy, or whether to work there as a server, busser or bartender. Many anti-smoking advocates seek to demonize opponents of a ban by saying their are the pawns of Big Tobacco or accept money from tobacco companies. Rest assured, I have done neither.

To deny a business owner the right to choose whether their establishment allows smoking is contrary to their basic rights. It makes it more likely that they will be tempted to move their business to a less regulated community.

People who are truly worried about the health hazard posed by secondhand smoke should perhaps focus their time and resources on making smoking tobacco illegal. As long as smoking remains a legally permitted activity in this nation, though, businesses should have the right to determine their own policies toward it.

I recognize that there are other issues at play besides economic ones, but the debate on this important subject must take all aspects into consideration. Anti-smoking advocates like to stress the evils of secondhand smoke while giving little thought to the economic harms caused by smoking bans to many.

After all, the bar and restaurant industry is very competitive. If smoking bans were good for the economic bottom line, wouldn't the industry have already realized this and made the need for a governmental ban unnecessary?

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Bill Hatfield is chief financial officer for a Cincinnati restaurant group.




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