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"Smoker’s don’t kill people – it’s the smoke!"
by Bob Bradley

We ran a commentary about some impolite smokers in a restaurant, and it became World War III. We got cards and letters, and most of the response was totally predictable – the non-smokers loved it and the smokers suggested we move to California. And after a careful study of the great smoking debate (at least in the eyes of our readers), the simple conclusion is that this is a complex problem that won’t be solved anytime soon. Don’t hold your breath for peace in the Middle East… or for any sensible resolution of the tobacco wars.

Let’s keep in mind that smoking will never become an illegal activity in the United States. There’s entirely too much money involved, and it involves approximately 25% of our population, and most of them would prefer that we get rid of the Surgeon General before we even think about outlawing smoking. Many see the decision to smoke as a basic right, and perhaps even a guarantee that’s spelled out somewhere in the Constitution. They won’t take away our guns, and god knows they’ll never take away our cigarettes.

The issue for our industry becomes the realization that they might take smoking out of bars and restaurants, and on a State by State basis, this concept is already becoming a reality. Everyone watches California because they already made the move by first outlawing smoking in bars, and followed with smoking bans in the restaurants. All of this is too new to intelligently assess – including the claim that business actually increased by some 4% after the ban went into effect. And keep in mind that about 18 percent of the adult population in California smokes, and by definition, the basic outdoor lifestyle of this area has little in common with places like New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

The real problem rests with our legal community, and based upon the predictability of their actions, smoking in bars and restaurants will probably be banned everywhere sometime in the very foreseeable future. A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that California's waitresses die from higher rates of lung and heart disease than any other female occupational group. They have four times the expected lung cancer mortality and 2-1/2 times the expected heart disease mortality rate. According to the study, this increased death rate is directly attributable to having to work day after day in smoke-filled rooms.

If you can spell the word lawsuit, you have some idea of the real problem, and it’s only just beginning. The fear becomes that employers who allow smoking in their establishments may risk future Workers Compensation claims by continuing to expose their employees to a known health hazard, as evidenced by an employee of a Marin County (California) restaurant and bar that allowed smoking, who received an $85,000 settlement for such a claim. The studies will continue to accumulate concerning the health hazards of smoking on employees, and the lawyers will do the rest.

Far more interesting is the activity in Wisconsin where restaurants are banning smoking on a volunteer basis, and the early returns suggest that the eventual ban might even be favorable for the average restaurant. We present the Wisconsin information with the warning that while "smoking can be harmful to your health", the early results and conclusions of any study can be highly suspect, and can have little, or nothing to do with your personal circumstances.

According to Jack Lohman, founder and chairman of the Wisconsin Initiative on Smoking and Health, "the facts are clear: if restaurants go smoke free, they will at least retain their current level of business, and they will often increase it. Maybe only by 3-5%, but an increase nonetheless. Only 2-3% of the population are die-hard smokers who would actually avoid a smoke-free restaurant. For every smoker a restaurant might lose, they stand to gain two nonsmokers in return. That’s a pretty good trade, and one that is substantiated by the restaurant industry’s own polls."

"We estimate that every smoking customer will, over time, chase away five nonsmoking customers. Of course, the smokers keep returning and the nonsmokers do not, so restaurateurs are left with a false sense of where their majority customer base really is. The smaller the restaurant, the higher the price they will pay. Historically, the tobacco industry has done an excellent job of convincing restaurant operators that since 25% of the population are smokers, going smoke-free would cost them 25% of their business. Clearly erroneous, but it is easy to see why one would balk at making such a drastic change."

"Why isn’t the restaurant operator equally afraid of losing the 75% who do not smoke? Because rather than complain, these folks just quietly slip away to cleaner air down the street. Operators see the returns; they do not see the departures. Fortunately, increasing numbers of operators are understanding the health and financial benefits of being smoke-free."

"In over 150 U.S. communities, smoke free ordinances have been implemented without a loss of restaurant business, and since 1992, the number of smoke-free restaurants in Wisconsin has grown from 65 to well over 1100 today. Why would these restaurants remain smoke free, were it not profitable? Indeed, most smokers do not quit eating in their favorite restaurant when it goes smoke free, they just quit smoking in it."

Back to our letters… and the following one provided some sanity in a sea of insanity:

Dear Restaurant Report:

I enjoyed your piece on smoking in our restaurants. As a non-smoker, I too would like a smoke-free environment. However, can't we have it both ways? How come we discuss trends in kitchen equipment, computer equipment, innovation in bar technology, but not air filtration technology? I believe that if we spend money on state of the art air-filtration technology, we can have it both ways. I wouldn't mind going to a restaurant that allows smoking, if once I sat down next to a smoker, the smoke went straight up and not across to me.

I look at it as a marketing advantage. Maybe you can point us all to state of the art, air filtration systems being used at the growing number of cigar bars, as an example of how smoke and dining can go together.

It's not people that smoke that bother me, it's the smoke. Lets get rid of the smoke, and not the people who are our customers.

Tom Dudchik (restaurant owner)

When it comes to smoke in restaurants, it doesn’t get more dramatic than a good (or bad) cigar, so we paid a visit to a real live cigar bar in downtown Philadelphia – Mahogany on Walnut (1524 Walnut Street in the heart of "Restaurant Row"). It was suggested that smoke in this establishment really wasn’t a problem, and perhaps we would discover the secret to making Mr. Dudchik and the restaurant industry very happy.

The restaurant presented the cigar aroma, which was totally understandable, but smoke itself was noticeably absent, and owner Tom Piazza gave us the good news and the bad news all at the same time. "We have virtually eliminated the smoke problem, and to accomplish this, we went with an industrial concept that absolutely works, but is comparable to building out an entire kitchen – in our case, a cost in excess of $25,000."

According to Piazza, "my real objective was to build a beautiful, and extremely comfortable restaurant and cocktail lounge where people could enjoy a good cigar, and where smoking was totally welcome and an important part of our presentation. But I also realized that excessive smoke would positively kill us. So many people think of us an extension of a cigar dinner, but these events are the worst places to experience a cigar. Everyone is smoking at the precise same time, and the restaurant is rarely equipped to properly handle the ventilation."

"We worked with a company from New Jersey by the name of TEC MAR. These people designed a system that was incorporated into our air conditioning, and was basically maintenance free. It was an industrial system that you would find in a factory as opposed to a restaurant. We looked at all the standard smoke systems and concluded they wouldn’t work for us, and we knew that the day- to-day maintenance factor would be a major consideration. Probably the very best thing you can do is install a "Hollywood" type wind fan, and blow the smoke out an open window. Of course, this is totally impracticable."

So the technology is there, all you have to do is pay for it, and everybody will be happy. But faced with the current climate of anti-smoking fervor and legislation, how many restaurant and bar owners are willing to make a major investment in a problem that the government and the lawyers are handling all by themselves?

Comments and feedback are welcome. Bob Bradley can be reached at

Read more opinions about the issue of smoking in restaurant in the "Great Debates"

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