Ten years after Washington State’s Smoking in Public Places law was put into effect, local health officials and restaurant owners agree that overall the smoking ban has been a good thing both for workers and for business.
As of Dec. 8, 2005, the state’s smoking law made it illegal to smoke in all indoor public places and places of employment, as well as within 25 feet of doors, windows, and ventilation intakes. The law is meant to protect both the public and employees from exposure to secondhand smoke.
According to data from the Spokane Regional Health District, statewide adult smoking rates have been trending downward since the law’s implementation, dropping from 21 percent in 2005 to 18.8 percent in 2015 in Spokane County alone.
Paige McGowan, the health district’s tobacco, e-cigarette, and marijuana prevention coordinator, says evidence shows that smoke-free air laws have improved the health of employees and the general population.
“In Washington state, air-quality monitoring tests conducted by the American Lung Association before and after the law took effect revealed indoor air pollution decreased by 88 percent,” says McGowan.
She adds that the rate of bar and restaurant employee exposure to secondhand smoke also dropped dramatically, from 29 percent in 2005 to about 3 percent in 2006.
“When the law passed, the Washington state tobacco quit line received a record number of calls, so it is safe to say that it also prompted a lot of people to try to quit smoking,” McGowan says.
The law established Washington as the 10th state nationwide to implement a comprehensive smoke-free indoor air law. Now, a total of 24 states have passed such laws.
At the time the smoking ban went into effect, many bar and restaurant owners were concerned about the potential loss of business, particularly losing gamblers to the region’s tribal casinos, which still allow smoking indoors. Some worried they would need to fire employees with smoking addictions; others contemplated adding outdoor smoking areas or becoming private clubs.
Bob Materne, owner of the Swinging Doors, a popular sports bar at 1018 W. Francis on Spokane’s North Side, says he was concerned 10 years ago when the law went into effect.
“I was scared, not only about losing business, but also potentially having to let a lot of employees go,” says Materne. “Fortunately, we didn’t have to let anyone go, but I fought really hard legislatively, working with the Washington Restaurant Association and others to try to make sure that didn’t happen.”
While he was considering it for a time, Materne says the sports bar wasn’t ever able to create an enclosed area outside for smokers, as it was already at its limit for square footage.
He says bringing the restaurant in line with the new law did involve some extra upgrades, including repainting all the interior walls with special paint to remove lingering smoke smell.
Although he was initially fearful, Materne says overall the smoking ban has improved business.
“If, for some reason, they ever let smoking back in, I wouldn’t do it,” says Materne. “It’s been what you might call a breath of fresh air, as the atmosphere inside is literally so much nicer.”
Materne says that since the smoking ban, the business has changed its approach, becoming a bit more family friendly, and has been continually voted best sports bar by various publications here over the years.
“We’re still a sports bar—the smoking ban didn’t hurt that—but our food business is definitely up, with more families feeling comfortable stopping in,” he says.
While he acknowledges the ban did hurt some of the bar’s gambling business, he says that probably would have occurred naturally.
“I would say gambling is a third of what it used to be, but I think that some of that would have dropped off anyway with the economy,” he says.
McGowan maintains that the smoking law has helped to protect both employees and patrons from secondhand smoke exposure.
“The SIPP law in Washington State has a high compliance rate and more than 90 percent of owners and managers say they rarely receive complaints related to indoor smoking,” she says.
According to McGowan, concerns about the law hurting business have largely been put to rest.
“Sales revenues for bars and taverns in Washington State were $105.5 million higher than expected just two years after SIPP was implemented,” she says.
While the law has gone a long way toward providing a heathier environment both for patrons and workers, health advocates are concerned with the introduction of new products such as vaping devices, also known as electronic cigarettes, into the market.
Electronic cig-arettes are used to deliver liquid nicotine and are sold in a variety of brands, flavors and nicotine strengths. The devices bring with them health concerns and confusion among business owners as to whether smoking-ban laws apply.
“As new smoking and vaping products are developed, Washington state and local jurisdictions may have to evaluate if existing smoke-free air laws are comprehensive enough to continue to protect the health and safety of the public,” says McGowan.
She says Spokane County’s health district is working to respond to complaints about vaping devices, and some businesses in the county already have implemented policies to specifically prohibit their use in the workplace.
Although county officials remain concerned about the health effects of nicotine delivery in aerosol form, McGowan says vapor products currently aren’t illegal under state law, because they aren’t combustible, or lighted smoking products.
“As far as we know, the legislature will not open SIPP, and local jurisdictions are tasked with adopting their own codes, resolutions, and ordinances to address vaping in public places,” she says.
Because the Spokane Regional Health District is the agency responsible for enforcement, McGowan says the change would have to happen by way of a resolution.
“Essentially, the board is clarifying that vaping devices are enforceable under SIPP,” she says. According to McGowan, other counties have taken different steps to ban vaping devices, such as creating ordinances or adopting a ban into their environmental public health codes.
While The Swinging Doors doesn’t expressly forbid the use of E-cigarettes indoors, so far the sports bar, which has a sizable separate family dining area, highly discourages their use. For his part, Materne says E-cigarettes haven’t been much of a problem yet.
“We have had to talk to some people,” he says. “Diners aren’t allowed to use them, as those devices do still create a smoke vapor, and that’s just not appealing in a family setting. We do still sometimes allow for them in the bar area,” he says.
Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Olympia-based Washington Restaurant Association, feels the impact of the smoking ban can be difficult to calculate.
“Life after the ban is different, but after all this time, to some degree, it’s been normalized,” says Anton. “Before the ban, I would say 80 percent of restaurants were already nonsmoking so they had zero impact. However, those businesses with more of a nightlife and tavern focus lost most of their heavy smoking clientele and had to change their business model or close.”
Anton says the Washington Restaurant Association has more than 5,000 members statewide, with 913 of those being in Spokane County, and 493 active member locations within the city of Spokane.
“Back in 2005, there were 675 restaurants in Spokane County, whereas today there are 818,” says Anton. “Most of that growth occurred from 2005 to 2012. The last few years have been kind of flat as far as restaurant growth.”
Despite the concerns about vaping products, Anton says he feels the biggest changes facing the restaurant industry now are unrelated to indoor smoking laws.
“The biggest thing now is going to be changes in business models due to the expected increase in minimum wage, and the impact of an evolving labor force,” he says. “Restaurants are going to be looking at changing technology, tipping trends, and how to approach a smaller workforce that is more highly compensated.”
Anton says in the restaurant business, ultimately, it is the customer who decides.
“The coming years will be a testing of the customers’ comfortability, trying new things like ordering by apps or kiosks, simpler menus, no tipping, etc. Overall, it will be the customers’ likes or dislikes that win out in the end.”
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