Alcohol tax revenues from Savannah, Ga., whose bars went smoke-free in 2011, increased slightly more than sales taxes overall compared with the year before the ban went into effect, according to a data analysis by The Augusta Chronicle.
Though that doesn’t directly reflect what happened to bar business in Savannah, those pushing a similar ordinance for Augusta bars say the analysis shows that the smoking ban didn’t hurt. Opponents such as Augusta Commission member Wayne Guilfoyle said that more years of data would be needed to gauge an effect and that the issue is really about the infringement on individual rights.
One owner whose bar went smokeless voluntarily in January said that initially seemed to help business and that overall the reception has been good.
Restaurants and other places that might attract people under age 18 went smoke-free under a statewide ban in 2005, but bars and other places where adults congregate were exempted. Since then, cities, including Savannah and Athens, have banned smoking in bars and other places. An effort to add Augusta bars failed last year.
One of the most commonly cited reasons against instituting a smoking ban in bars is that owners fear it would hurt business. People both for and against smoking bans cite studies that back up their position that it will or will not hurt business.
In an effort to find objective data, The Chronicle requested alcohol tax revenues and sales tax revenues from the city of Savannah for 2010-12, covering the year before, during and after the ban went into effect. Overall, sales tax revenue increased 9 percent, and although beer tax revenue increased 6 percent during that period, wine tax revenue rose 11 percent, liquor tax revenue went up 14 percent and mixed-drink tax revenue rose 16 percent. Officials cautioned that the taxes are paid by wholesalers that sell to bars and that other factors, such as the economy, likely had a much bigger impact than the smoking ban.
Jennifer Anderson, the chairwoman of the BreathEasy Augusta coalition pushing for an Augusta ordinance, calls the results “amazing,” however. She acknowledges it is not proof the ban helped bar business.
“But it is certainly not a negative thing,” Anderson said. “I guarantee you, if it were lower, everybody else would be saying that was the cause.”
Guilfoyle said five years’ worth of data before the ban would be needed to determine whether the numbers suggest a larger trend. It boils down to taking away the right of a person to do something that is lawful, he said, and the ban would affect not only bars but also other places such as warehouses, even for the business owners themselves.
“You’re telling the owner he can’t even smoke in his own building,” Guilfoyle said. A ban could affect places that aren’t even indoors, such as golf courses, he said.
“When you’re on a golf course and you’re playing golf, there’s nothing better than a fine cigar and a cold toddy among friends,” Guilfoyle said. “And now that is going to be taken away.”
Proponents for an ordinance said it is about rights – the rights of workers, in disproportionately blue-collar jobs, to work in a place where they don’t have to inhale second-hand smoke. Anderson rejects the argument that those workers could just go work somewhere else.
“There are individuals in this town who cannot find another job, and they’re having to sacrifice their health for the sake of putting food on the table,” she said.
Joe’s Underground decision to go smoke-free in January helped business for the first couple of months, owner Jeremy LaFontaine said. Since then, bar business has fallen off sharply all over, he said, probably because fewer people are going out to avoid getting caught up in roadblocks around town during Operation Thunder, a crackdown on traffic violations in Richmond County.
“If I thought we were suffering solely because we went smoke-free and everywhere else is not, then I would reconsider my options,” LaFontaine said. “But overall I’d say we get a pretty good positive feedback. We do trivia on Thursday nights, and I feel like we usually get a pretty good crowd. And most of them, if not all, would not be there if there was smoke.”
For Anderson and other advocates, Savannah’s experience bolsters their argument for others to join Joe’s Underground.
“To me, it’s a no-brainer for the public health part,” she said. “But it’s also nice that it’s good for business.”