Clean air strategy: Some nightspots opt to tighten smoking rules

June 29, 2009

When bar owners want more business, they tend to make additions. They hook new brands of beer to the tap, book live music, or offer never-before-fried foods.

A few Indianapolis taverns are experimenting with subtraction—by taking away the ashtrays.

Coaches Tavern, MacNiven's Restaurant and Bar, and The Jazz Kitchen are among Indianapolis bars that recently limited or banned smoking. Those establishments join a short list of bars that already buck the trend in Indianapolis. Smoking in public places, including restaurants, has been banned in Marion County since 2006, but it's still OK to puff away in places that don't admit minors.

Bar owners said they don't want to see the county or state impose a complete ban. Now that the recession has them competing for every crumb of business, however, they're ready to tailor their own policies to customer demand.

The Jazz Kitchen went smoke-free June 24. Owner David Allee said it was the final step in a years-long evolution. First, in 2001, the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood nightclub banned smoking at shows by national acts. More than a year ago, Allee snuffed out the butts on Thursday's Latin jazz night.

"There aren't that many smokers that come in anymore," Allee explained.

Allee said the clean-air policy makes sense for his club because the regular crowd is older, ages 30 to 60, rather than 21 to 45, and more interested in dining. The ashtrays will make their exit as Allee debuts a lighter, less expensive menu.

"It's not that it's an easy decision," Allee added. His bartenders are worried the non-smoking crowd will drink less, and he does expect to lose a few customers.

Allee hopes the number of new, non-smoking customers will make up for the loss, but he's realistic. "People are not going to pour in the door."

The Jazz Kitchen won't be the first live-music venue to go smoke-free. Radio Radio in Fountain Square started forcing smokers outside five years ago, after owner David Clough had a heart attack at 48. The Vogue nightclub in Broad Ripple now bans smoking during all ticketed shows. The club books national touring acts.

Coaches on Pennsylvania Street and MacNiven's on Massachusetts Avenue have banned smoking during weekday lunch hours.

Coaches bartender Beth Vantlin suggested a tweak to the house smoking rules after lunchtime business dropped dramatically. Vantlin blamed the recession. Coaches also has a new, smoke-free competitor across Pennsylvania Street, Scotty's Brewhouse.

Happy-hour customers told Vantlin they didn't go to Coaches for lunch because they didn't want to return to work enveloped in tobacco odor. The small change, in effect since May 1, seems to have done the trick, she said.

"I have seen new faces. People have said, 'We're going to come in more often now,'" Vantlin said.

Coaches customers still expect to relax with a drink and a cigarette after work, she said.

"A smoking ban at nighttime would kill us," she said. "We're totally pro-smoking in here the rest of the time, for sure."

The recession also drove the change at MacNiven's, which started its smoke-free lunch in April.

"Especially now, with the way things are, we want to do whatever we can to keep bringing business in," Manager Danielle Black said.

The best-of-both-worlds policy also has worked for Chatham Tap, where smoking isn't allowed until 11 p.m.

Co-owner Holly Vande Linde said the four owners, all non-smokers, devised the rule when they opened in 2007 because they wanted to draw the downtown business crowd, plus late-night drinkers.

"We figured if you're still in the pub after 11 p.m., you would expect people to be smoking around you," she said.

Bar owners' voluntary bans come as anti-smoking activists campaign to close the loopholes in the Marion County ordinance. Clubs and bowling alleys may still allow smoking, as can any restaurant that opts for an adults-only crowd.

"A lot of what we're doing is so we can build momentum, so we can change the policy to cover all workplaces," Smoke Free Indy spokesman Tim Filler said.

Smoke Free Indy recently received funding from national anti-smoking groups to run print and radio ads. The campaign got under way in late April, after the Legislature failed to pass a statewide ban.

Smoke Free Indy also works closely with Take Note, a local group of musicians and restaurant workers who encourage individual bar owners to venture into non-smoking territory.

Sixteen states and Puerto Rico have workplace smoking bans that include restaurants and bars, according to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation. The list includes Illinois and Ohio.

Indianapolis bar owners are still carrying the libertarian banner, regardless of their personal habits.

"The market and the people should be able to make their choice," Jazz Kitchen owner Allee said.

Radio Radio owner David Clough predicted a ban would hurt bars catering to a late-night crowd of "professional" drinkers, who usually smoke.

"I don't like the idea the government forces you to do things," he said. "People have tried to get us to sign petitions. I don't know if I'm into it."

Smoking-ban advocates can point to a host of studies showing that overall food and beverage tax revenue has risen after the new laws take effect.

California Polytechnic State University economist Michael Marlow said those studies fail to acknowledge that some businesses do suffer. "They claim no one is [economically] harmed-that's absolute nonsense," he said.

(Marlow began studying the economic impact of smoking bans independently in 1996, but his later research was funded by Philip Morris. Marlow, who calls himself a "public choice" economist, defends the industry backing, saying public health groups won't support honest economic research.)

Marlow, a non-smoker, said bans tend to hit bars harder than restaurants.

"That doesn't mean a small subset wouldn't gain," he said.

Smoking bans generally get approval after a significant number of businesses are voluntarily smoke-free, Marlow said.

"Even Las Vegas has smoke-free casinos," he said. "It's a natural evolution of what's going on."

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