As the smoke clears

Businesses report mixed results from smoking ban

The smoke is clearing. And businesses that were affected by Initiative 901 report some were burned while others take a breath of fresh air.

The law bans smoking in all public buildings and from within 25 feet of doors, windows or vents that could allow smoke to enter the building. Owners of many bars, restaurants, gambling venues and other businesses where smoking commonly was allowed feared customers who smoked would disappear. And it was thought smokers would go the way of the sales tax in Clark County and head to Oregon where they could light up while eating or playing bingo. Some, however, speculated smoke-free rooms could be a draw to non-smokers who shied away from such places in the past.

The early uproar quickly died down, but impacts have been felt.

Theresa Cross, health educator with Clark County’s Tobacco Prevention and Education Program, said the majority of complaints came soon after the law went into effect in early December.

"Businesses have adjusted," she said. "It took some time to get used to."

Enforcement is complaint driven, said Cross. About 50 businesses received letters warning them of their first complaint against them.

"It usually clears up the problem," said Cross.

In the event of a second complaint, an unannounced visit is made by the health department, but it can only take further action if a violation is witnessed. The Clark County Health Department made four such visits, said Cross.

The health department has worked with business to ensure compliance by providing signage and establishing acceptable smoking areas. Exemptions to the 25-foot rule are allowed if it is found smoke does not enter the building. Two exemptions have been allowed. A smoking area for Clark County employees between the jail and courthouse was found to be in compliance and the health department worked with Dollars Corner Pub to construct a covered smoking area in the rear of the building.

It appears, however, the exemption was not enough to help the Battle Ground-area bar on 219th Street. The bar closed at the end of March, and owners say I-901 is to blame.

"The bar business is hard under the best of times," said Karen Kresao, who owns Dollars Corner with her husband Richard Kresao. The smoking ban was the last straw.

Karen Kresao said the 25-foot rule is the most prohibitive, as it keeps bars from allowing smoking in a patio or beer garden. When they had to begin sending customers outside to smoke, the bar hired someone to monitor the parking lot. Dollars Corner always had a strict in-and-out policy, said Kresao, "because you never know what’s going on out there."

Dollars Corner constructed a covered area for smoking in the rear of the building in the corner of a fenced patio and received an exemption because it was only 21 feet from the back door. But it didn’t keep the business afloat. The real loss came from the bar’s profit from pull-tabs, which dropped as much as 650 percent, said Kresao.

The Kresaos knew it was time to get out when they started reaching into their pockets to cover the payroll. The couple is now trying to sell the business, and has had some offers.

Operators of Rodeo Bingo on Northeast 65th Avenue in Vancouver said Initiative 901 contributed to it closing its doors in March after more than 20 years.

Peggy Brooks, post manager of the American Legion Salmon Creek Post 176, said its bingo games held Monday through Wednesday have been hurt, but not all that much. Attendance may have declined as much as 20 percent at one point, she said. But a growing attendance of non-smokers and the demise of Rodeo Bingo has helped offset the decline.

"I’m seeing a lot more husband and wife teams," said Brooks, "And I’ve gotten some good feedback from non-smokers."

Brooks, who is a smoker, said her non-smoking husband now goes with her to play bingo, where before the smoke turned him away.

Brooks said the law has not been difficult to enforce. Each session has one designated break for smokers.

"No one likes that," she said. "They would like to see smoking allowed. They complain it’s unfair."

Troy Wray-Steigman, owner of Prairie Bar and Grill on Northeast Caples Road in Brush Prairie, welcomed the changes. He said business has been sustained if not improved since the ban went into effect.

"I’ve noticed a positive change from our customers," said Wray-Steigman. "It opened up more opportunities for people."

Customers can come to lunch and dinner without having to worry about smelling like smoke when they go back to work or home, he said.

Wray-Steigman was a proponent of I-901 from the beginning. He figures if the majority of the population doesn’t smoke, being smoke-free increases his pool of potential customers.

As a non-smoker, Wray-Steigman pushed it as a positive change to his employees and customers.

He said there have been a few complaints from customers who want a nicer place to smoke, and he has had only one defiant customer who kept trying to light up. But before the ban, he had many more people complained there was too much smoke.

Wray-Steigman said Prairie Bar and Grill is fortunate to have a large parking lot where people can smoke and a large front covered area where he placed benches. With that comes new troubles, such as loitering and trash.

Overall the transition has been smoother than expected, he said.

Wray-Steigman credits Prairie’s diverse food menu and positive outlook on the change for the business’ success.

"I hope it sticks," Wray-Steigman said of the law. "Even if it doesn’t, we won’t allow it back."

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