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Six months into a new Columbus smoking ban, some local bar operators say they have lost regular customers who were smokers. Meanwhile, hopes to replace them with new, nonsmoking customers have evaporated.
While a 2012 state law exempted bars, private clubs and tobacco stores from statewide requirements banning indoor smoking, the City Council passed a city ordinance in December 2012 that outlawed smoking in all businesses except those in private homes. Some bars and clubs took action before the ban went into effect June 1, pre-emptively prohibiting smoking, leaving only a handful of businesses to be affected by the new ban.
Tim Gilham, owner of The Cozy Lounge at 3870 25th St., said that the first summer months under the new ban were OK. He began offering e-cigarettes for sale and an outdoor patio where smoking customers could light up. By tweaking the prices a bit, Gilham was able to keep his growth rate positive — although some months it was only $100 over the previous year.
But when cold weather hit, crowds dwindled. He said November receipts at The Cozy were down $2,000 from the prior year.
“If I have to go through this for the next three or four months while it is cold, I don’t see how we can manage to keep this thing going,” Gilham said.
People come to a bar to sit with friends, have a drink and enjoy the company, Gilham said.
He rhetorically asked, who is going to want to leave their friends to go smoke outside when it is 10 or 15 degrees out?
While anti-smoking advocates and City Council members suggested that new crowds of nonsmokers would come out to enjoy the now-fresh air, those crowds have not materialized, some bar owners said.
Gilham and his wife, Amy, do not pay themselves a salary and rely on profits from the bar to pay their home expenses. Last month, there wasn’t enough bar income to cover the household expenses, he said.
When he sees his former customers around town, they tell him candidly that they stopped coming to his bar because of the smoking ban, he said.
Gilham places the blame on City Council members who voted for the measure. Only two voted against the smoking ban, Aaron Hankins and Frank Miller. Hankins stepped down from the council this year when he moved out of town for work. Miller stops by the bar occasionally to have dinner with his wife, Gilham said.
But Gilham plans to bring his ire at the council to the public if he is forced to close.
“If this is the way this is ... if we can’t survive this, then we are going to go out in a very public fashion; we are not going to quietly close our doors,” Gilham said. “Everybody in town is going to know what City Council has done to this bar.”
Miller said he voted no last year and if the ban came up again today, he would vote no again. He said the arguments haven’t changed and there is no desire on the part of the council to revisit the issue.
“I am not saying that smoking is good for you,” Miller said. “I am an ex-smoker, and I agree that I prefer to go eat or dine or have a drink in a nonsmoking place myself. But I still feel like the bar owners have a choice in that.”
Miller said he has been trying to frequent the affected businesses, including The Cozy, to show his support. But he said he believes people are more likely to stop by the liquor store and invite a few friends over to their home to drink rather than stand outside in the cold smoking outside a bar.
Mark Wray, manager of Ziggies and son of the owners, James and Donna Preble, said business has been horrible since the smoking ban took effect and the ban hasn’t helped his business at all. His bar, on Two-Mile House Road, is not near a factory or the downtown business district, but a regular crowd would come out to lunch so they could smoke, or stop by after work. Now instead of heading by his bar at 5 p.m., they seem to be heading home.
“Now that they have taken that smoking away from them, they have no reason to drive across town,” Wray said.
Wray said he has lost employees because they made less money from tips after the ban went into effect, and he has had to let other employees go in cost-cutting moves as revenues have shrunk. He, too, said he has not seen an increase in the number of nonsmokers coming to his bar.
“I don’t sell oxygen; I sell alcohol and greasy food,” Wray said.
Paige Huckaby, a bartender and waitress at the Elks Club on Ray Boll Boulevard, said that she can see that the ban is hurting her because her tips are dwindling. She said smokers don’t stay as long to drink and they have told her they are driving to Edinburgh or other nearby communities where they can still smoke. And while there have been a few new faces who are nonsmokers, it hasn’t made up for the regulars who would routinely drop $30 a night and are now choosing to stay away.
Lt. Matt Myers, spokesman for the Columbus Police Department, said his agency has had no enforcement calls for smoking in bars since the ban went into effect. Stephanie Womack, tobacco program coordinator for Reach Healthy Communities, said she also has heard no complaints about illegal smoking in bars.
“From our perspective, it has gone really well,” Womack said. “We have heard nothing but positive feedback from people in the community.”
Although Healthy Communities offered a suite of assistance to affected business owners, including paid advertising in The Republic and on the radio, and educational materials such as signs, table tents and coasters, only one business — The Garage Pub and Grill — expressed any interest in the offer, she said.
Womack said her organization would fight any efforts to remove the law, now that
it is in place. In fact, she would like to see the ban expanded to bars and clubs outside of Columbus in Bartholomew County. “Our goal is to have a comprehensive smoke-free air law for the county, but we haven’t reached that point yet,” she said. “We have
been doing a lot of education with county commissioners and county residents. We hope to continue that education and eventually get that kind of comprehensive law for the county.”
Councilman Tim Shuffett said the council was warned about business closings because of the law change, but so far that has not happened that he can see.
While he is concerned about the livelihood of bar owners and employees, he also is concerned about the health of employees, mail carriers or delivery people who are exposed to secondhand smoke.
Shuffett said he expects to see the local businesses rebound and he hoped they would sell the positives of being smoke-free and not the negatives of the smoking ban.
Although Shuffett said he has not increased the frequency of his visits to the former smoking bars, he has stepped up his trips to Fourth Street, which went smoke-free before the ban went into effect.
“I enjoy going in there now and not having the smoke smell,” Shuffett said.
Shuffett said he has heard no interest on the council in reconsidering the issue.
“For me, it is still the right decision to make, and we are going to be a better city moving forward,” Shuffett said.
Most of the public feedback that councilman Dascal Bunch has gotten has been positive and the businesses he has talked to have seen their traffic increase a bit and see the ban as a positive, he said.
However, he said he did not want the ban to hurt anyone’s livelihood. If bars and clubs could show him concrete proof that their business was suffering, he would reconsider his support of the ban.
“I don’t want to see anybody go out of business,” Bunch said. “That wasn’t my intent to support it.
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