Alex Schiff: Bars' support for the smoking ban

BY ALEX SCHIFF

Published January 18, 2010

“Why do you smell like smoke?,” asked my roommate, Sam Shreeman, as I entered our room at 1 a.m. one October Saturday night.

“I was at the pub studying for my economics midterm,” I sighed. By now, he found nothing strange about my response.

I can’t study in libraries (too quiet), my dorm (too many distractions) or places like Panera (I take too many interruptions to refill my 73rd glass of Diet Pepsi.) Roughly three weeks into my first semester at the University, I found my oasis of productivity: The Blue Leprechaun. It has all the things I need to study — good food, servers that bring your 73rd free refill to the table, free Wi-Fi and enough noise to block out my brain saying, “Check Facebook! Watch Family Guy! Do you need to do laundry? Check Facebook! Who won the football game last night? Check your e-mail! Am I missing South Park? Check Facebook!”

There’s just one problem — I come home smelling like a used ash tray. So you can imagine my joy when I learned that Michigan had passed a ban on smoking inside all bars and restaurants. Not only will I no longer risk lung cancer while studying, non-smoking customers and employees won’t be forced to inhale the poison being shoved down their throats by smokers.

I have many good reasons to agree with the ban. But instead of telling you what I think, I decided to put on my reporter hat and devote this column to the thoughts of those most affected by the ban — bar owners and employees.

On one of my many visits to The Blue Leprechaun, I spoke with General Manager Scott Meinke. “It’s a good thing for the people that work in the service industry,” he said. “As everyone knows, secondhand smoke is a threat to people’s health. It’ll be good for the health of our staff for them not to be subjected to secondhand smoke.”

He doesn’t seem too mad about the ban. But business might decline. Won’t the ban keep smokers — and their money — at home?

“Personally, I don’t think it will affect business,” Meinke noted. He added that while it may discourage some smokers from dining out, new customers that previously wouldn’t eat in a smoking environment would balance this loss. The ban now gives The Blue Leprechaun a chance to better protect the health of its employees without risking losing customers to other bars.

So, does anyone think that the ban will actually hurt business?

David Root, a manager at The Brown Jug, said, “As long as everyone has to go non-smoking, it doesn’t bother me.” While he disagreed with the fundamental concept behind the ban, his concern was the injustice that casino floors, where non-smoking patrons are just as vulnerable to secondhand smoke, would receive an exemption. He said he was not worried about the effect of the ban on The Brown Jug’s bottom line.

Non-smoking establishments don't seem very angry either. “I think that it was long overdue,” Good Time Charley's owner Adam Lowenstein told me in an interview. “When we re-opened Charley’s, we re-opened it as a non-smoking bar, and I think every bar should be like that.” When I asked what provoked this decision, he responded that, “It’s about having a good working environment. If I’m going to be having managers working full-time, I can’t be subjecting them to secondhand smoke all day.” Moreover, just like every other owner or manager I talked to, he believes that the ban’s effect on business will be minimal, if anything.

On the subject of the rights of private establishments to conduct themselves as they see fit, Lowenstein added, “It’s not unfair. The government has the right to regulate businesses whether you agree with what they’re doing or not. They do it in a million ways every day.”

Ben Hammond, daytime manager of Good Time Charley’s, commented, “I can understand that it’s a private property and a private establishment, but it is the public that frequents the establishment, so you have to go by what’s best for the public.”

But the main goal of the legislation is to protect the health of employees who are forced to inhale the smoke, so I asked them what they thought about the upcoming ban, which goes into effect May 1, 2010.

Katie MacDonald, employee of The Blue Leprechaun, noted that even though she smokes casually when she goes out, she still thinks it’s a great idea. “Even people that do smoke find the atmosphere really disgusting on nights when it gets really bad.” She even described being burned on several occasions while working when inconsiderate smokers had tapped the ashes off their cigarettes as she was passing by.

Good Time Charley’s employee Kristin Singleton enthusiastically told me, “I like the fact that it’s going to happen. I’m a smoker but don’t like leaving a place smelling like an old ash tray.” That sounds familiar. In the name of journalistic integrity, I felt compelled to betray my own personal biases and play devil’s advocate. So I raised the common criticism that employees choose to work in a smoking environment when they apply for the job and should work elsewhere if they don’t like it.

In response, Singleton lamented that her sister Ashley, who suffers from asthma, works at another bar outside of Ann Arbor and sometimes has asthma attacks on the job because of the smoke. She has been told multiple times by her doctor that she should find another job but has nowhere else to go. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t notice many “Hiring Now” signs hanging in windows around America.

And that’s not just an isolated instance. Tatiana Klein, another Blue Leprechaun employee, also suffers from asthma and complained that the “smoky atmosphere can really exacerbate it.” Should smokers tell Klein and Ashley Singleton to find other jobs because of their medical condition? Does a smoker’s nicotine craving trump the health of the customers and employees around them?

I’ll let Meinke answer that: “A pre-existing condition shouldn’t deter anyone from doing anything they enjoy, especially as far as employment goes.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Alex Schiff is an assistant editorial page editor. He can be reached at aschiff@umich.edu.