Iowa smoking ban not as dire as predicted

Sales up at restaurants, taverns

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On a quiet, weekday late afternoon, it’s the same as it ever was at the Green Gable Inn. Almost.

Four years ago, the regulars at this tavern, 1227 J Ave. NE, would have been sitting in a haze of cigarette smoke, but the air here and in bars and restaurants across Iowa was cleared July 1, 2008, when the state’s smoking ban took effect.

“I like it,” said Alicia Henley, 37, from behind the Green Gable’s bar. “I used to smoke, and I’m glad it changed.”

“I hate it,” said smoker Clay Graham, 58. He said he goes out less often now that he can’t smoke in bars.

Fred Madison, 42, said he doesn’t mind stepping out to the bar’s parking lot, where the owners have provided seating and sand-filled buckets for butts, for a quick smoke.

Well, most of the time.

“The worst part is having to go outside when it’s real hot or cold,” said Madison.

“I still have some complaints, but it hasn’t changed the business substantially,” said Green Gable co-owner Rod Hunt. “I thought we’d have a bigger effect than it did.”

The law’s critics may still argue it infringes on their freedom — an argument that hasn’t held up in court — but their 2008 warnings of businesses closing and economic loss weren’t realized.

Annual sales at restaurants and taverns increased nearly $80 million since the law took effect, to more than $3.4 billion last year, according to statistics from the Iowa Department of Revenue.

The state has issued hundreds of new liquor licenses over the past four years, said Tonya Dusold, spokeswoman for the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.

“We have not seen licensees go down,” Dusold said.

Whether it was cause or effect, Nick Jelinek has seen a change in attitude with the ban.

“I can’t imagine someone firing one up now (indoors),” said Jelinek, co-owner of Parlor City Pub & Eatery, 1125 Third St. SE. “It would be a total shock.”

Before the flood of June 2008, proprietor Jeff Melsha banned smoking at the Little Bohemia Tavern, 1317 Third St. SE, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Little Bohemia reopened in December 2010.

“They could come in smoke-free for lunch,” said Melsha, himself a non-smoker. “They’d be counting down the minutes. Then I’d have to pull out the ashtrays.”

“Even though I’m a smoker, I like it better,” said Little Bo customer Kris Saulsbury, 44. “Your hair doesn’t smell, your clothes don’t smell.”

“It’s much better,” said Sandy Jewett, 42, Little Bo’s manager. “My eyes aren’t red at the end of the night.”

Reported violations of the law are practically nil. After 50 complaints filed in the first year of the ban, 70 were filed in the following three years — just two in the past year, said Dusold, with the beverages division.

“It was a big enforcement push from about six months in to 18 months,” she said. “There was a lot of attention in that time period.”

Bars selling only prepackaged snack foods may provide outdoor smoking areas for their customers, but restaurants can’t allow smoking in any outdoor seating area. The law also bans smoking in any outdoor area where entertainment, such as live music, is provided.

Beverly Walsmith, project director of the Iowa Tobacco Prevention Alliance, calls the law highly successful.

Noting 84 percent of Iowans don’t smoke, Walsmith said the law increased the customer base for bars and restaurants.

Dr. Christopher Squier, director of the University of Iowa’s global health sciences and oral sciences programs, found monthly hospital admissions for cardiovascular diseases and conditions dropped 24 percent between June 2008 and June 2009,“representing 2,324 fewer Iowans with this condition.”

“We saw significant reductions in hospital admissions in Iowa for individuals suffering from diseases related to exposure to tobacco smoke, such as heart attacks (myocardial infarcts), but NOT for diseases unlikely to be exacerbated by smoke, such as broken bones,” Squier wrote in an email. “This is real data gathered by the Iowa Hospital Association.”

Walsmith said the anti-smoking group’s work isn’t done. She wants to extend the smoking ban to the one category of public rooms where smoking is still allowed: casinos.

“When this law went through, of course it was our hope it would be universal,” she said. “We’ve promised the casino workers we’d continue to work on that.”

Iowa is one of 27 states to ban smoking in all public places, and another 13 have restrictions with exemptions. It’s simpler to list the 10 states without any smoking limits: Alabama, Alaska, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming.


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