Customers go up in smoke

“No smoking” signs are replacing cigarette butts littering Oak Harbor these days.

But while some Oak Harbor residents may be breathing easier after the state smoking ban was implemented one year ago, many businesses find they are still suffering the effects of non-smoking.

Since the smoking ban caused by Initiative 920 went into effect the smoke is still clearing, but the effect on Whidbey Island businesses appears to be a mixed picture.

According to the Washington State Department, the ban has not drastically affected bars and taverns statewide. Gross business income increased 0.3 percent during 2006 compared to 1.1 percent average annual growth from 2002 through 2005.

Mike Gowrylow of the Department of Revenue said in a press release that, although the department “has not attempted to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between revenues, the numbers suggest the bars and taverns may have lost some smokers, but gained customers drawn to a smoke-free environment.”

This rings true for Gary Sims, managing partner of Toby’s Tavern in Coupeville. Sims has noted an improvement in business since the ban. He said the tavern made the decision to go smoke-free 15 months before the ban went into effect.

“They step outside, have a little social time, and they come back in and we have a good time,” he said of customers who still choose to smoke.

Because Toby’s is more of a restaurant than a bar, he said customers don’t usually smoke inside anyway. “It’s been positive,” he says of the ban.

However, not everyone views the ban as positive or fair.

Kelly Beedle, manager of Oak Harbor Tavern, argues that the state is receiving tax money from cigarettes yet banning smoking indoors statewide is causing a tremendous loss of revenue for business owners. Ironically, Washington has the highest cigarette tax in the nation, and is profiting from the sale of tobacco, yet business owners are feeling the effects of a smoke-free environment.

“We’ve had to find other ways of bringing people in … bands, cribbage, pool,” Beedle said, noting that some former customers who smoke just don’t spend time downtown anymore.

Of course, she said it could be that with the military in town and a war going on, the daily deportment of military personnel has contributed to the decrease.

Cindy Brown, manager of All Sports Pub and Eatery on Goldie Road near the base, is matter of fact about the situation.

“Business has dropped, especially when the weather is cold and people don’t want to go outside,” she said.

Customers were upset about the ban, and still are. But, she said, “We can’t change the law.” Instead, to compensate for customers lost due to the ban, she is thinking about putting in a beer garden, even though the beer garden would have to be 25 feet away from the building and it would have to be enclosed by a four-foot fence. That’s what the smoking ban requires.

Tina Johnson, manager of the American Legion in Oak Harbor, said that the smoking ban has affected the private club as well.

“It’s hurt our business a lot,” she said last week, stating that the American Legion Post has seen a 10 percent decrease in profits over the last year.

An assortment of cigarette butts “on the ground, in flowerpots, and all over the road,” attest to a serious littering problem caused by people who smoke regardless of the ban and have no place to put out their cigarettes, Johnson said.

The American Legion received a notice from the Health Department because someone reported the club for keeping trash cans with built-in ashtrays outside the doors, but it was only a measure taken to cut down on the litter.

Despite the litter in some cases, most would agree that the ban makes evening hangouts healthier for everybody, but for now, business is slower than it was.