Waiting for the smoke to clear

Area businesses predict what will happen when the statewide smoking ban goes into effect

Clark County businesses are grappling in unique ways with the impending statewide smoking ban – effective Dec. 8. One tavern’s regulars are trying to quit, and another plans to build an enclosed patio. Some say there will be relatively little effect while some expect whole niches of businesses to be financially devastated by the new law.

Will it be neutral…
Chris Stillman, co-owner of CJ’s Grill in Battleground, said that nonsmokers who have stayed away will now start frequenting the restaurant, while some smokers may eschew eating out. Travis Donofrio, manager of Riverside Bowl in Camas, expressed a similar viewpoint.

"It will be a tradeoff," said Donofrio. "It will maybe hurt for a week or two, but then nonsmoking bowlers will start coming out."

Some businesses have anticipated the ban. Donofrio reported that most of the smokers at Riverside Bowl have been trying to quit for the last few weeks, while Russell Brent, regional manager of Vancouver’s Who Song and Larry’s, stated that they performed internal research and went non-smoking inside in August.

…or devastating?
"It will kill us," said Nancy Tester flatly. Tester is post manager at the American Legion Salmon Creek Post 176. The majority of bingo players at the American Legion are chain smokers, said Tester. If they can’t smoke and play in Vancouver, they’ll go somewhere else, like Portland bingo halls or tribal casinos.

Sharon Haines, manager of Ridgefield’s Sportsman Pub, had similar misgivings, including that the smoking ban won’t apply to the proposed Cowlitz Tribe’s casino in Ridgefield.

"The smoking ban is going to hurt us big time," she said, adding that she sees staff cut-backs in the future.

Roberta Knott, owner of the Big Foot Inn in Washougal, predicts the same.

"We’re already in economic difficulty, with the gas crunch. If it goes down much more, I’ll have to lay off some of my people – and that hurts," said Knott.

Even businesses that aren’t predicting financial disaster have problems with requiring smokers to be 25 feet away from doors or windows that open.

Knight stated, "The 25 feet part is ridiculous – puts it on the neighbor’s property!"

Max Guttenfelder, owner of the LaCenter Tavern, has only five to six feet to work with on his business’ property. He said bluntly, "My whole business is in the hands of the Health Department," which can grant him an exemption.

Larger restaurant owners see the 25 foot mandate as simply a major one-time expense. For example, Brent said that to comply with the mandate, Who Song and Larry’s must build a separate heated enclosure for their smokers – a project that would require thousands of dollars.

Across the river
Whether the smoking ban will drive customers across the river into Portland is a matter of debate. Some business owners, such as Tester, think the majority of their clientele will take their dollars into Oregon, where they can smoke while playing bingo at tribal casinos like Spirit Mountain and Chinook Winds.

Neighborhood bar owners, such as Mark Knight, owner of the Hideaway in Hazel Dell, aren’t too worried. They assume people who frequent their establishments don’t want to drive that far. Knight says most of his customers will "get used to it." Haines predicts that Oregon’s strict driving-while-intoxicated laws will deter folks from driving across the river. Instead, she thinks that people who want to drink and smoke will simply stay home.

On the other hand, Who Song and Larry’s Brent not only isn’t worried about customers going to Oregon, he sees the exchange going the other way.

"People from Multnomah County will come to our side for a smoke-free environment – we’ll get the tax benefit," he said.

What is at stake?
The Washington Department of Revenue reports that in 2004, eating and drinking establishments generated the fifth largest amount of taxable retail sales – $3.42 million.

Some independent economic studies show that smoking bans have either a beneficial or neutral effect on businesses. For example, New York City implemented a smoking ban in 2003; and a year later, NYC reported business tax receipts in restaurants and bars were up 8.7 percent. Those who support the smoking ban, such as Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, claim studies that conclude smoking bans have a negative effect on business are funded by the tobacco industry.

However, Nancy Tester estimated that if the bingo halls close, the county would lose at least $3000 per week in tax income just from the American Legion hall, which is significantly smaller than the other two local bingo halls (Rodeo Bingo and 40 ET 8 Bingo). Also, philanthropic causes would no longer benefit from the monies raised by the bingo halls, which are nonprofit. For example, 40 ET 8 Bingo donates their money to nursing programs at Clark College and to the DARE program.

Melanie Keser, president of ZDI Gaming, a Vancouver-based supplier of pull-tabs and bingo supplies, is worried.

"If bingo halls close, it will have a huge effect on our business," she said

But, it’s still too early to tell what really is going to happen. Bart Phillips, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, downplays the effect of the smoking ban across the Clark County economy.

"People have opinions, not facts," said Phillips. "I don’t think it will have any impact whatsoever – it will just be different."

A private matter

Since the smoking ban applies only to public places, some businesses, such as the Fargher Lake Inn in Yacolt and the Arnada Café in Vancouver, are considering doing an end-run around the smoking ban by becoming a private club. However, there are considerable differences between running a regular for-profit business such as a café or tavern, and running a private club.

Private clubs can take several forms. Not-for-profit corporations can be formed under various chapters of Washington law, including membership-based corporations formed under Chapter 24.03 RCW, and ownership-based corporations formed under the "Miscellaneous and Mutual Corporations Act" (Chapter 24.06 RCW). Private clubs can also be unincorporated associations with a basis for membership and a charter document.

Each type of business entity has its own tax, liability and ownership/control issues, and must deal with not only Washington state law, but also with the state liquor board and IRS regulations. For more information, businesses can contact the Secretary of State Corporations Division at 360-753-7115.

To fee or not to fee

While business owners are waiting to see how the chips fall, enforcement agencies are also waiting for input. For example, Sergeant Steve Urban of the Battleground Police Department said that as of mid-November, they had yet to receive an official direction from the Battleground Chief of Police. However, he suspected that it would be treated as the smoking ban for juveniles is treated – if an officer sees a violation, he will issue a ticket, but it isn’t likely that officers will begin making militant sweeps through restaurants and taverns on a nightly basis, actively searching out smokers.

Camas Chief of Police Don Chaney said that his officers will follow the law and cite smokers in the "normal course of what we do." He also said it was likely that occasionally police forces would raise awareness of the new law by emphasizing it for a week or so, as they currently do for other offenses, such as jaywalking.

Theresa Cross, Health Educator with the Tobacco Prevention and Education Program at the Clark County Health Department, said her agency likely won’t take a hard-line enforcement approach. They plan on mailing an educational brochure to all eating establishments and businesses with liquor licenses, as well as providing the required signage.

"We want businesses to succeed," said Cross.

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