After the smoke cleared

Vancouver bar owners dispute data that show state’s smoking ban hasn’t been bad for business

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Troy Blattner didn’t harbor any illusions about the business he was getting into when he bought Vancouver’s Tip Top Too tavern. So why, he wonders, would his customers?

“From day one, when I opened the bar up I put up a note on the door that said this was a smoking establishment and you enter at your own risk,” Blattner said, still smoldering over Washington’s Clean Indoor Air Act — also known as Initiative 901 — five years after voters passed the ballot measure that banned smoking inside businesses. Blattner says there never was the sustained influx of nonsmoking customers the bill’s backers promised.

“I got a few people right there the day of the smoking ban and after,” said Blattner. “I only saw them for two or three days.”

Bar owners across Clark County share Blattner’s opposition to the ban. But tax figures and a newly published government study suggest the measure may have been a boon to their industry.

The data

Statewide sales at bars and taverns have grown more than expected since the ban took hold, a new peer-reviewed study in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s journal Preventing Chronic Disease said. Businesses are classified as bars and taverns if more than half their sales come from alcohol.

Published in July, the report studied taxable retail sales from 2002 through 2007. It found that for the two years since the smoking ban was implemented, sales were $105.5 million more than expected. That amounts to a $21 per capita increase in spending across the state, based on an estimated 5 million adults in Washington.

The study was paid for by the Washington State Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.

More recent state Department of Revenue data, meanwhile, show Clark County bar and tavern sales have also grown since the ban’s passage. In 2005, before the ban, drinking establishments reported more than $15 million in taxable retail sales. Their sales dropped by 20 percent in the ban’s first year, but rose to pre-ban levels in 2007. Sales in Clark County continued rising through 2009, when they hit more than $21 million, a 43 percent increase since 2005.

“Compared to all taxable retail sales and retail trades it appears that bars and taverns have done well,” DOR spokesman Mike Gowrylow said. “In this economy to hold your own is pretty good.”

The CDC study looked at aggregate taxable retail sales for all bars and taverns in the state, so it wouldn’t have caught individual businesses negatively affected by the ban.

“However, the decrease in revenue for these establishments was more than offset by the increase in revenue overall and supports our conclusion about the positive state-level economic effect,” the report said.

Myde Boles, the study’s principal investigator, said the study used a rigorous economic analysis and took numerous factors into account that might have affected the sales numbers. These factors included seasonal fluctuations, population growth in Washington, personal income growth and unemployment rates.

“There is a strong body of literature that supports the fact that once smoke-free laws go into effect there’s not a negative impact,” said Boles, who works for the Multnomah County Health Department and the Oregon Public Health Division.

Experience differs

Though the industry as a whole may have improved, individual bar owners say they’re not seeing the economic benefits the data suggest.

“I lost a lot right at the beginning,” Blattner said. “I slowly got them back. It’s just uncomfortable during the winter.”

Blattner, who owns two other Vancouver bars, was a vocal opponent of Initiative 901. He says he never saw a sustained increase in business after the law was passed.

Brandon Smith, who owns downtown Vancouver’s Dublin Down, said the law unfairly targets his industry, especially because nonsmokers have always had businesses they could choose to go to in order to avoid smoke.

“All it did was injure bars,” said Smith, who used to tend bar at Blattner’s Top Shelf. “The people who aren’t going to bars because there are cigarettes there are the people who don’t go because there’s alcohol there.”

Electric alternative

Smith went into business in 2006, after the ban took effect. After seeing his previous employer’s business hit by the ban, he decided when he opened up his bar to sell smokeless electronic cigarettes. The devices cost approximately $20 apiece. Smith says he sells about 10 of them a month. The Dublin Down doesn’t have enough room outside for a tented smoking patio like the one at the Tip Top Too, Smith said. Once bargoers go outside for a cigarette, he said, they’re less likely to come back in for another drink. The smokeless cigarettes keep customers inside.

“They’re bar-friendly,” Smith said. “We sell them because people don’t want to go outside and smoke in the rain.”

Overall sales were great during Smith’s first year in business, but he said they tanked with the recession. He even had to cut prices. Smith said it was “asinine” to suggest the smoking ban helped business.

At the time of the ban, bar owners said many regulars decided to do their drinking in Oregon, particularly in Jantzen Beach. In fact, sales at Clark County bars and taverns began to creep back up even before Oregon enacted its own indoor smoking ban in 2009.

Gowrylow said he looked at specific data from a handful of individual bars in Vancouver. Some showed growth after Oregon’s ban was passed, he said, but others didn’t. (Gowrylow couldn’t disclose which bars he looked at because data from individual businesses is confidential).

“It appears that any benefits of the Oregon smoking ban are not being spread equally,” he said. “Why that is would take a more intensive study.”