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Smoking Ban, Six Months Later …

Overall, revenues are up, but impact of smoking ban on restaurants is unclear.

Potomac resident Lori Leasure doesn't smoke, and didn't really notice when Montgomery county enacted its ban on smoking indoors at any restaurant in the county.

"Even when it's outside, I don't like it," Leasure said while sitting at a table in front of Potomac's Hunter's Inn.

The smoking ban went into effect on Oct. 9, 2003. It was enacted as a public health measure to protect restaurant employees for secondhand smoke, said County Councilmembers at the time.

Restaurants fought the ban, saying it would cause a decrease in their business, particularly in bars.

When the ban was enacted, the council said that they expected there to be some hardship on restaurants. But now that six months have passed, one councilmember has released data which he says shows the impact hasn't been as bad as was expected.

"What the numbers show is that the restaurant industry continues to thrive in Montgomery County," said Councilmember Phil Andrews (D-3). Andrews was one of the co-sponsors of the original ban in 1999 and the current ban.

From October to March, restaurant receipts for Montgomery County were up seven percent from the previous year, said Andrews, citing state figures.

In Potomac, business is pretty good, said Fred Berman, owner of the Hunter's Inn. Berman estimated that sales were up for his establishment, but he cautioned that might not be the case everywhere. "I don't believe that's true for everybody," Berman said.

He pointed out that Hunter's Inn, which did allow smoking prior to the ban, has a well developed restaurant business, and that operators who have only a bar are being hit harder.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland has a different perspective on the numbers which Andrews released.

"The statistics he released are only looking at aggregate sales tax numbers," said Melvin Thompson, spokesperson for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

Thompson said that most restaurants were already smoke free, so the impact on them would be minimal. Therefore, including these establishments in the totals skews the numbers.

Andrews disagreed, saying that the numbers must be analyzed in a county-wide context because fluctuations at one restaurant might be the result of any number of different factors, not just the smoking ban.

"That's the only fair way to look at it — is to look at the whole industry," Andrews said. "The restaurant industry is a volatile industry."

Thompson also said that while gross revenues are up, that does not separate food sales from bar sales. Since alcohol has a higher profit margin, the gross increase may not be realized on the restaurant's bottom line.

Liquor sales are down, Thompson said, and bars have been particularly hard hit as a result. Thompson pointed to several establishments which cater to "blue collar" clientele who stop by for a drink and a smoke on their way home from work, and have stopped going in. "If that's your core clientele, and they're not coming in, you can't last," he said.

Additionally, the lack of business has caused some places to cut staffing. "Jobs are still being affected," Thompson said.

BEYOND THE NUMBERS, Andrews points out that the measure was introduced as a public health initiative. Throughout the debate, lawmakers repeatedly stated that the measure was designed to protect the health of restaurant patrons and employees. "The reason for this legislation is to protect the public health," Andrews said.

In that respect, it must be judged a success, he said. "It is achieving its purpose in protecting the public health and our constituents like it," Andrews said.

Some restaurant employees, Berman pointed out, spoke out against the protection. "There were a lot of [restaurant workers] who came to the public hearing and said, 'we'll deal with the second-hand smoke,'" Berman said.

He also points out that since patrons are forced to step outside to smoke, others are forced to pass them. "In order to get in and out, they walk through a haze of smoke," Berman said.

"It's just unfair that this is the only county in the state. In the rest of the state you can smoke," he said.

The time may be coming for a statewide ban, Andrews said. Since the end of this year's general assembly session, Talbot County and the states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts have all gone smoke free, he said.

The statewide ban failed by one vote in committee this year, Andrews said, but the year before the margin had been greater. "Everything is moving toward adoption," he said.