Date ArticleType
Smoking defenders snuffed out by legislation

By Nathan Peck | MiBiz

WEST MICHIGAN - Light up in a bar or restaurant after May 1 and that pack of cigarettes could cost patrons $100 or more.

When Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation in late December that would make the state's bars and restaurants smoke-free, public health officials touted the decision as one that will bring Michigan in line with 37 other states that have already banned smoking in bars and restaurants. Granholm noted that secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in Michigan, killing 2,500 people annually.

Industry leaders and business advocates are crying foul, arguing the decision to go smoke-free is best left to individual business owners, but many restaurant owners say the decision to go smoke-free is paying dividends.

Small businesses are struggling in the tough economy and need assistance, not more government regulation, Jennifer Kluge, president of the Michigan Food and Beverage Association, told MiBiz. Those establishments that allow smoking have calculated the risk and decided their business model works by attracting smokers to their bars and restaurants.

"With everything the state of Michigan has to worry about, to pass the smoking ban, in the current environment, is an embarrassment to the state," Kluge said. "Small businesses have to face the economy, changes in customer needs and new tax structures. This is one more slap in the face to small business."

Bars and restaurants are now facing the decision of whether to make accommodations for smokers in order to keep their business, Klug said. Many are considering whether to add covered areas and heaters outdoors.

The Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce was vocal in its concern that early drafts of the legislation punished business owners and not the individuals caught smoking, Steward Sandstrom, president and CEO, said. The Kalamazoo Chamber did not voice vehement opposition to the legislation, but is watching how the law will be implemented.

"This is one of those foundational things — let business decide for itself what it ought to be doing. We understand (the) health argument," Sandstrom said. "I'm looking into the details of the law as it is written and enforced, which is sometimes different than the document the governor signed."

Janessa Stroud, VP for governmental affairs for the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, said her organization stayed neutral on the issue because of the offsetting concerns contained in the legislation. The health case for banning smoking in restaurants is strong, but her organization opposed the government stepping into decisions better left to business owners. The Muskegon Chamber is working to provide resources to help make the transition, pairing smoking establishments with those who have recently made the switch.

Frank and Gina Lister decided to ban smoking at their Muskegon restaurant, the Hearthstone Bistro, four years ago. Tiring of the difficulty keeping smoke out of the nonsmoking section of the restaurant, Frank said it was easier to ban smoking altogether. He estimated the business lost only a patron or two after the decision.

"There always was a conflict between smoking and nonsmoking. We got sick of the conflict, and we were concerned about my health, that of my staff and customers," Lister said. "Mostly, people were delighted."

Greg Gilmore, CEO of the Gilmore Collection, agreed, telling MiBiz he views the move in a positive light and expects there to be very little impact on his business. The majority of his company's 25 restaurants currently are smoke-free, with smoking areas confined to a small part of establishments' seating.

"I think it is going to be a good thing," Gilmore said. "It will likely drive more people that don't want to be around smoking into our restaurants."