Lights Out

Lights Out

Most praise smoking ban in Potomac; small, family-owned bars without outdoor areas hardest-hit.

For some, smoke-filled bar rooms are unacceptable health hazards. For others, they are a vital livelihood. Two years after Montgomery County’s restaurant smoking ban, Potomac restaurant owners are largely pleased with the results of the anti-smoking legislation, though some say it damaged business.

All Montgomery County restaurants are now smoke-free, except in incorporated areas that modified or rejected the ban, such as Poolesville and Kensington. The restaurant industry aggressively opposed the County Council’s 1999 ruling, and a lawsuit brought by more than 200 plaintiffs held up implementation until 2003.

The bill was classified as a health ban and did not require a ballot vote. Long-term health effects frequently attributed to second-hand smoke include increased risk for lung cancer, heart disease, asthma, lung infections, ear infections, allergies, and miscarriage and birth defects.

Earlier this month, sponsors of the bill — Councilmember Phil Andrews (D-at large) and former Councilmember Isiah Leggett (D-at large), who is running for county executive — released data showing restaurant sales up in the second year of the ban. Statistics gathered from the Maryland Comptroller’s Office show that restaurant receipts increased from $57.7 million the year before the ban to $68.8 million the second year of the ban, a jump of 19.2 percent.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland disputed the report. The vice president said that the methodology was flawed because data from fast food restaurants, coffee shops and other historically non-smoking establishments were included in the analysis. The Association pointed to the closings of Anchor Inn Seafood in Wheaton, Dietle’s Tavern in Rockville, Buffalo Billiards in Gaithersburg and Montgomery’s Grille in Bethesda, which claimed to be forced out of business because of the smoking ban.

MANY RESTAURANT OWNERS in Potomac are supportive of the ban or ambivalent about it. Affluent people tend to smoke at lower rates than the population at large, according to a 2002 report by the Centers for Disease Control and

Fred Berman owns The Hunter’s Inn, which is located on River Road. He was initially critical of the ban but now believes it has drawn in new customers.

“For us it’s been positive,” he said. “We only allowed smoking in the bar area before. Since [the ban] people bring their children in more and it’s better for business for us. We’re in a very affluent neighborhood and most of our customers don’t smoke anyhow.”

Youlla Vellios, co-owner of Tally Ho, a pizza shop on Falls Road, said that the ban did not negatively impact business.

“We have two rooms, and we stopped [smoking] in one room first to do it slowly,” she said. “[The ban] didn’t affect us at all. Everything went very smoothly on that. We’re not smoking people so it didn’t bother us either.”

Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) supports the ban.

“I think it works,” he said. “Bethesda’s central business district is probably the restaurant capital of America — it has 300 restaurants in a 10-block radius. I monitored the situation there closely, and it’s my observation not only as a customer and talking to customers, wait staff and owners, that the ban on smoking has helped business.

“People feel more inclined to go into these restaurants with their families and kids because there’s less smoke,” he said. “It’s a public health issue, and I think we did a good thing. I’ve even heard from piano players and musicians who say they appreciate the fact that there’s less smoke around. I spoke to one piano player who had emphysema and his livelihood was impaired.”

THE BAN’S IMPACT was more severe for small, family-owned bars, especially those without outdoor areas for smoking customers.

“It cut down on the money in my pocket,” said bartender Mike Gantt, who has worked at Flaps on River Road for more than 17 years. “I don’t do this to go to school, I do this for a living.

“Everybody calls it spin. I just call it a flat-out lie,” he said of Andrews’ and Leggett’s data. “They put in things like Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Burger King. Yeah, I would hope sales are up after two years.”

Gantt believes that growth in the county, as well as increases in rent and utilities, is artificially inflating the sales. He said receipts on keg beer, which goes mainly to bars, is a more adequate measure of the ban’s effect, and that those sales were down.

“[The ban has] negatively affected a lot of places,” said Gantt. “It affected me because I’ve got a lot of customers around Happy Hour time from Poolesville who work in Bethesda, D.C. or close to the line, and smokers are still going to places they can smoke.

“During the summer, my people stay down in Bethesda because it has outside smoking,” he added. “In Rockville, they have a huge outside area where they let people smoke. As long as you had a place for [customers] to smoke, you weren’t hurt as much or at all. It hurt a lot of the smaller places.”

The city of Poolesville voted to keep smoking legal in restaurants within its borders. Gantt said he knows of restaurants just outside the city of Poolesville that closed after the smoking ban drove customers to bars inside the line.

What about customers drawn to the non-smoking atmosphere?

“People that really, really dislike [smoking] really don’t frequent a bar that often,” said Gantt. “I had someone in the other night, they were so glad the bar is non-smoking. I said ‘How come I don’t see you out much?’ They said, ‘We don’t go to bars much.’”