A bill that would ban smoking in Arkansas restaurants is heading for a vote in the state House of Representatives, and the sponsor is confident of its chances for passage. Some restaurant owners, however, are mobilizing to fight it.
“I’ve had it for years — at least two sessions,” state Rep. Jay Bradford of Pine Bluff said of HB 1883, which would prohibit smoking in all food service establishments that earn more than 30 percent of their gross revenue from food sales. “This is the first time it cleared committee, and I am going to put it on the agenda this week.”
Bradford believes his legislation is finding more success this year because state health agencies and other advocacy groups are supporting it. He also claims that “half of the restaurant owners are for it,” while admitting that there is a “vocal minority” very much opposed.
“It is completely unfair,” said Suzon Awbrey, a co-owner of Sticky Fingerz Rock & Roll Chicken Shack, a Little Rock restaurant and bar. She says her establishment gets 42 percent of its gross revenue from food sales, mostly at lunch, making it subject to the smoking ban. But the other 58 percent of its revenue comes from alcohol sales during happy hour and evening live music concerts. Awbrey is concerned that those customers will take their business to competing bars that are not covered by the smoking ban.
“We can’t afford to drop food sales, because that is 42 percent of our business,” Awbrey said. “But we also can’t afford to drop night-time and become just a restaurant.”
Awbrey said she would support the smoking ban if it applied equally to bars and restaurants. Because Sticky Fingerz does not fall easily into either category, it is representative of the “vocal minority” Bradford mentioned.
Advocates of the legislation cite economic figures showing no adverse effects to restaurants and bars where similar smoking bans have been imposed. However, nearly all of the examples cited — including Albuquerque, N.M., Helena, Mont., New York City, and the states of Florida and Massachusetts — prohibited smoking in both bars and restaurants.
Fayetteville adopted a smoking ban in March 2004 that is similar to Bradford’s legislation, in that it is applicable to establishments where more than 30 percent of revenue is generated by sales of food. Overall restaurant business there has increased, consistent with economic growth trends. But Ozark Brewing Company, which, like Sticky Fingerz, divided its business almost evenly between food and alcohol sales, cited the smoking ban as the main reason it closed last May.
Arkansas already has banned smoking in state buildings. The effort to prohibit smoking in restaurants is as much about creating a healthier work environment for employees as it is about reducing the effects of second-hand smoke on customers. The Coalition for a Tobacco Free Arkansas says someone working an eight-hour shift in a restaurant where smoking is allowed breathes in thousands of milligrams of carbon monoxide and tar, as well as smaller amounts of other chemicals.
These facts are not lost on restaurant workers like Konstantin Dimitrov, a server at Sufficient Grounds in Hillcrest, who is himself a smoker, but does not think he should be exposed to second-hand smoke in the workplace.
“I’m a smoker, and even I don’t like to go upstairs [to the smoking section],” Dimitrov said. “They don’t allow smoking in office buildings, and workers in the restaurant business deserve the same right. It’s definitely a health issue.”
The natural next question then becomes, what about people who work in bars? Why don’t they deserve the same protection as restaurant employees?
Bradford says they do, but he contends that banning smoking in bars as well as restaurants is “too big of a leap for Arkansans.”
“From a practical point of view, the bars and taverns would be so adamantly against it that we would lose the bill,” Bradford said. “I really believe that eventually they will be all cleaned up, and maybe we can go back at a later date. But right now it is a matter of realism: You either get half a loaf or nothing.”
Dimitrov, who is opposed to smoking in restaurants, agrees.
“If I go out, especially to a bar, I like to smoke,” Dimitrov says. “There are a lot of people who only smoke when they drink.”