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Citywide smoking bans? Business owners have points to make

Several cities in Mississippi are considering citywide smoking bans and a few have adopted these ordinances as reports about the dangers of second-hand smoke become more compelling. How do business owners’ feel about city governments determining policies for their private enterprises?

Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, says no-smoking ordinances have more of an effect on the restaurant industry than other business segments because there is no “one size fits all” ordinance.

“Fast food restaurants are in large part smoke free already, so a ban wouldn’t have the same effect as it would for a Waffle House or Huddle House-type restaurant that has a higher percentage of smokers,” he said. “The same can be said for restaurants with bars versus restaurants without bars.”

Kwitzky’s Dugout Bar opened in Ocean Springs nine months ago and chose to go smoke free. That Jackson County city is currently considering a citywide smoking ban and is looking at variations of ordinances from other cities in and out of the state.

“My bar is smoke free because I don’t smoke,” owner Chris Kwitzky said. “It’s the best thing ever. It’s the biggest no-brainer in the history of no-brainers. It’s been easy and no problem enforcing it.”

He says the ban has not hurt his business, but he does have a pleasant outside garden where smoking customers can sit.

“It’s the most ideal situation and I have a small percentage of smoking customers,” he said. “I rarely get any complaints. It’s an adult thought process. I think that’s why it’s so easy. Anyone of age is welcome here but it’s not a kid bar.”

He adds that it’s nice not to have to shower off the smell of smoking when he leaves the bar at night.
It’s a different story for business owners who did not open as smoke-free establishments. “It is hard to tell an individual that has spent $500,000 opening a private business that they must regulate and police their customers,” Cashion said. “The nature of this business is to do our best to accommodate everyone while not alienating anyone.

“In years past, separate dining rooms and better ventilation systems served that purpose. Now, the trend is to outright bans, negating thousands of dollars of renovations and ventilation enhancements many restaurants spent trying to accommodate all customers.”

Jay Yates, owner of The Veranda Restaurant in Starkville, says that city’s no-smoking ordinance has not hurt his upscale casual dining business but has hurt the restaurant and bar industry overall. The citywide initiative was adopted by the city council last May.

“Some with outdoor smoking options like us are doing okay but others don’t have that,” he said. “We were in a fight to prevent the ordinance because we thought it should be a private decision. Before the ordinance passed, well over 50% of all bars and restaurants in Starkville were smoke free on their own.”

He said bars and restaurants with large outdoor areas are doing the best because that’s mostly where the city’s college age crowd hangs out. “They’re fickle. They have in mind what they think is a hot spot and those are the places that brings in that crowd,” he said. “Others follow them and a large part of that age group smokes.”

As a small businessman Yates thinks the country’s piece meal approach to smoking bans is unfair to small business owners and he sees it as a private issue. “We are not for smoking but it is a legal practice and we don’t like having the ban rammed down our throats,” he said. “We know eventually the whole country will be smoke free and we’re okay with that. Coming to small communities and hitting the little guys is the wrong way to go. It needs to be on a national level.”

Yates spent $8,000 on a ventilation system for his business three years ago. “Now it’s useless,” he said. “The market said it wanted non-smoking sections and the industry responded. Let the market forces dictate this, too.”

He says it’s unfortunate that restaurant owners get painted as bad guys in their communities. “It’s not true that we are for cancer and smoking,” he said. “I would vote for more tax on smoking that would raise the price of a pack of cigarettes to a level that would force smokers to stop. But this is a slippery slope. There’s so much stuff out there coming behind this that will continue to come after the restaurant industry — french fries, ice cream and other things.”

The Tupelo City Council has been presented with petitions in support of a citywide smoking ban, and five of the nine council members have said they support the ban. The passage of such a ban is okay with Jamey Finley, manager of Chick-Fil-A at Thompson Square. The free-standing restaurant has been smoke free since it opened in 1995.

“It was a smart business decision and hasn’t hurt our business,” he said. “We thought it would best fulfill our vision to love our customers and love each other. We thought we could serve our customers better by being smoke free. We didn’t think about how profitable it would be or not be. “

Finley thinks the majority of his customers wanted that type of environment for families and children to enjoy dining there. There is no way to section the business into smoking and non-smoking areas.

“We’ve had no more than three or four negative comments. People understand better now and don’t try to press their smoking on others,” he said. “It was the perfect time for us to do it.”

In addition to Tupelo and Ocean Springs, Hattiesburg, Meridian and Mantachie are known to be considering smoking bans in public places. Metcalf went smoke free in 2003 and Starkville enacted a ban in May of this year.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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