Michigan bar owners await smoking ban impact


    Michigan bar owners are uneasily awaiting the approach of Saturday, May 1, when it will become illegal to smoke inside any place of employment throughout the state, with the exception of casinos and qualified “cigar bars.” The American Cancer Society, on the other hand, expects a “vocal minority” to oppose the new law once it takes effect.

    After almost 10 years of debating the issue, late last year the Michigan Legislature enacted the workplace smoking ban, and it was signed into law by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in December. She said secondhand smoke is the cause of death of 2,500 people in Michigan each year, and she noted Michigan now joins 37 other states that have similar smoking bans.

    Rick Roberson, the president of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said that in the state of Washington, where a similar ban was enacted a couple of years ago, many licensed beverage establishments “closed their doors.”

    On the other hand, Roberson, who has owned and operated Angelo & Riccardo’s bar and restaurant in Hesperia since 1978, said he was also told that sales of some brands of beer in Washington party stores “gained about 50 percent” during the same few months after the ban took effect.

    “What it tells you is, people are buying (beer) and going home,” said Roberson.

    The new legislation requires bar management to ask anyone who is smoking to stop, and if the individual continues, ask him or her to leave the establishment.

    If a patron defies the law and smokes, “I’m supposed to pull your cocktail and tell you to leave,” said Roberson. “So who knows what’s going to happen? I don’t know. If I sound pessimistic, I probably am,” said Roberson.

    Roberson said the MLBA, which has about 2,500 members, is going to promote so-called “electronic cigarettes” to its members, and will obtain a quantity of them from a California company.

    According to an article last year in The New York Times, electronic cigarettes have been made in China for about five years. The simulated cigarette contains a small battery-powered device that produces a vapor mist similar to tobacco smoke, containing nicotine.

    “They’ve been in the market quite a while,” said Roberson. “A friend of mine who is the president of the California licensed beverage association has been selling these for about four-and-a half, five years, and she kind of put us on to it a couple years ago.”

    He said that as pressure grew for a smoking ban, the MLBA began seriously considering electronic cigarettes, which are considered legal because they do not contain tobacco and nothing is burning.

    “We’re just going to start promoting them to our members,” said Roberson. “It’s pretty much trying to give the customer a reason to sit on that stool and have an extra beer. A guy comes in, has one beer and says, ‘Well, I’ll go out and have a smoke.’ Well, if it’s 20 degrees or 15 or zero, he’s probably going to get in his car and drive home.”

    Lance Binoniemi, director of the MLBA, confirmed that the organization “will, in the near future, be promoting Freedom Smokeless electronic cigarettes to our members.” He was not able to provide any details on how the “e-cigarettes” will be distributed.

    As for the ban on real cigarettes, enforcement will be up to local community health departments, under guidelines issued by the Michigan Department of Community Health.

    According to the Miller Canfield law firm Web site, individuals who smoke in violation of the law are subject to a $100 fine for the first violation, and up to $500 for subsequent violations.

    Bill Anstey, deputy health officer for Kent County, said “there really hasn’t been real good guidelines out yet on what enforcement needs to be done. There’s been no funding to locals to do the enforcement, so at this point, we are still awaiting further direction from DCH on what we’ll be doing. But without any funding from the state to do enforcement, our role is not going to be a major one.”

    James McCurtis Jr., a spokesman for the state Department of Community Health, said last week the DCH is in the process of working out enforcement guidelines. He said it would “most likely” be “complaint based,” with complaints filed with the local health department and then investigated, similar to complaints about restaurants.

    According to the MLBA, a “cigar bar” can still allow cigar-smoking — but only cigars — if it files an affidavit with the DCH. A “cigar bar” must have a built-in humidor on premises and10 percent of gross revenue must come from the sale of cigars or rental of humidor space. McCurtis said cigar bar affidavits won’t be accepted by DCH until after the first of May.

    Steve Warmington, the mayor of Muskegon and owner/operator of the Marine Tap Room bar in Muskegon, affirmed that his establishment will “follow the law” come May 1. However, he also said he is “not in favor of the government, once again, interfering and telling business people what they can or cannot do in their business, particularly when it pertains to a legal product.”

    Warmington, who has also served in the past as president of the MLBA and has had the Marine Tap Room for 21 years, said he would guess that there will be “some forms of challenges” to the new law, although he added he was “not sure where they will come from, yet.”

    He said there are a lot of questions about the law pertaining to “outside service areas,” which generally refers to decks and patios, but he and other MLBA members believe the law will prohibit smoking anywhere on a golf course that has a beverage cart in service.

    “In most other states, you are allowed to smoke in outside service areas,” said Warmington.

    Warmington noted the lobbying effort already underway by military veterans clubs in both West Michigan and southeast Michigan to have the law amended to exempt them from the smoking ban. He said he does not believe private clubs deserve to be exempted “any more than anybody else should.”

    He thinks it is fair that the three non-Native American casinos in Detroit are exempted from the law because a smoking ban would seriously affect their ability to compete with Native American casinos. The state has no power to ban smoking in Native American casinos.

    Warmington said there have been “plenty of restaurants and a few bars across the state of Michigan that have gone on and made the choice to become non-smoking, and the reason they did that, in most cases, was because their clientele demand it. And I still believe in that system — you will take care of your customers. If enough people don’t come to your place because it’s smoky or because you allow smoking, you’ll make that change yourself. Or you would think you would.”

    The American Cancer Society in West Michigan worked with Tobacco Free Partners, a local coalition of many health and nonprofit organizations, in support of the smoking ban, according to Mike Lindhout, executive director of the ACS West Michigan region.

    Proponents of the law “worked very hard to make sure this bill was as comprehensive as possible, to include as many workplaces as possible,” said Lindhout.

    “A big point of this bill is making sure employees have a safe place to work where they are not being exposed to secondhand smoke. Not just bars and restaurants, but any workplace,” he added.

    Noting that it has taken the better part of 10 years to get the legislation passed, Lindhout said he believes the proponents of the Michigan ban have learned from other states the best ways to implement it and meet challenges to it.

    “It certainly is going to be an adjustment for people,” he said. “I’m sure that there will be a vocal minority of folks that will be out as the implementation happens on May 1. But the fact of the matter is, there is a silent majority who has wanted this for a long time.”

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