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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Take a Deep Breath…the Smoking Ban is Here

By Steve Charing

As this edition of OUTloud "hits the streets," a new page in Baltimore lgbt social culture is about to turn. Starting February 1, the ban on indoor smoking is in effect in all bars, clubs and restaurants in Baltimore and all over the state. For smokers and non-smokers alike, the era of returning home from these establishments with your shirt smelling like it had been used to wipe ashtrays is over.

But this law was not put into effect because of laundry issues and the amount of smoke that settles into your clothes. It was enacted during the 2007 General Assembly because of the amount of smoke that permeates the lungs of everyone around a smoker, and was backed by nearly three-quarters of Marylanders, based on a Gonzalez Poll.

The effort to ban smoking here had been buoyed by a report in 2006 from the U.S. Surgeon General stating that the public health hazards of secondhand smoke are "indisputable." And according to the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition, an advocacy group, "Secondhand smoke exposure is the third leading cause of preventable death, killing 1,000 Marylanders every year."

This past April I used this space to discuss the possible implications of the ban on the local bar owners and the community. In short, some owners were accepting of the ban and were even eager to have it implemented because they saw it as a way to improve the environment for their customers and employees. On the other hand, one bar owner insisted that he would lose business as a result of the ban and plans to appeal.

I had speculated that smokers will learn to cope and will continue to enjoy the bar culture, which they seek. I also believed (and still do) that many people who eschewed the bar scene in part because of the smoky conditions may now return or try them out for the first time.

In Baltimore several owners of gay bars are making renovations to their establishments to accommodate their smoking patrons. Some of these include a smoking deck at Grand Central, a covered outdoor patio at the Baltimore Eagle and a structure of some sort outside the rear door of The Quest. Others who cannot make such changes will have to address the litter, loitering and noise caused by those who step outside the bar to light up
I randomly surveyed several bar owners and managers in neighboring locales like Washington D.C. and Delaware who have had to deal with smoking bans for over a year. The results were mixed but clearly not as apocalyptic as some fear.

"The smoking ban did not affect business too much," said Perry Morehouse, a manager of the popular club Omega on DC’s P Street. "It led to a better working environment. But the only problem is with people congregating outside."

John Berdini, the owner of Cloud 9 in Rehoboth Beach told me that littering from outside smokers is a problem even though he installed ashtrays. "In the long run, however, the ban was a good idea," he said. "I’m glad the state made the decision for me because there were too many conflicts between the avid smokers and passionate anti-smoking customers." He added that the ban had an effect on business to some degree but it also brought in new customers.

Sayed, a manager of the 1409 Playbill Café, a theater restaurant and bar in DC, said he was not losing customers but revenue. "When people go out smoking, they are not drinking. I’m losing about a drink per person." Sayed also acknowledged there were new customers since the ban went into effect but it didn’t make up for the lost revenue.

Phone calls and e-mails to Joey Oldaker, general manager of another P Street club, Apex, were not returned. But according to the results of an informal survey conducted by the Washington Blade shortly after the implementation of the ban, Oldaker had stated that his club lost customers and revenue as a result and had to raise prices slightly to accommodate that. "Our biggest concern is the people who go outside to smoke," Oldaker said in the Blade story published last May. "We're nearly surrounded by condos and the noise created by the people outside smoking could create problems."

In that same article the DC Eagle’s Bill Capello reported losses in revenue and customers and had planned to appeal based on hardship while the 17th Street bar DIK reported a gain in both revenue and customers. The Fireplace, too, saw an increase in customers.

I contacted a manager at the DC Eagle, Ted Clements, to determine if the financial conditions have improved since last Spring. "We have a patio where smokers can smoke. It’s just a matter of getting people to know that," he says. "There is still some loss of revenue from customers not crossing the river, but personally, as a non-smoker, I am not feeling the bad effects from sinus problems since the ban."

What bar owners and managers neglect to account for is the loss of customers prior to the ban due to respiratory illnesses or death. Again, the thrust of this law was aimed at improving the health of the customers and employees of the bars by protecting them from secondhand smoke. A smoker can demand personal freedom and such, but a non-smoker also has the right to avoid toxic fumes.

This is definitely going to require an adjustment period that will take some time. But overall the bars and their owners will be better off, as well as their non-smoking employees and customers.

The lgbt community has enough divisions already: men and women, gay and transgendered, white and black, young and old, rich and poor, politically active and apathetic—I could go on ad nauseum. Smokers and non-smokers have also divided the community. Hopefully, adapting to this new law will at least help remove this chasm.

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