Blowing smoke: the aftermath of Virginia’s smoking ban

A year and a half ago Virginia passed legislation that limited where people could smoke. Some prophesied that bars and restaurants would lose business because of the enhanced regulations. Did that end up happening?

In late 2009, the improbable happened: Virginia went smoke-free—to an extent. Known throughout the world as a tried-and-true tobacco town, lawmakers in Richmond prohibited indoor smoking in public restaurants under Democratic stewardship of then-Governor Tim Kaine, a Democratic-led Senate, and a Republican-led House. The marriage between Virginia and tobacco is omnipresent. On the ceiling of the Capital Rotunda are leaves of the crop, and as late as the mid-twentieth century, tobacco companies employed 1-in-15 Richmond workers. The largest cigarette manufacturer, Altria (previously named Phillip Morris Companies Inc.) is still headquartered in Henrico County.

Many thought that a city so suffused with tobacco smoking would stymie local businesses. Those concerns were not unfounded. According to 2010 data, 18% of Virginians smoke regularly; for Richmonders, that figure is 20%. Patrons and business owners worried about possible detrimental repercussions that the ban would exact.

That, however, was a year and a half ago. Patrons and business owners have now grown accustomed to the smoke-free nightlife culture. But does that mean that revenue has balanced out? “It’s hard to pack the place with non-smokers,” says Matt Bailey, speaking, as a co-owner, for Curbside, located in the Museum District. Of the smoking ban he says it “absolutely without question has hurt our business.”

A business that will celebrate its ninth year of being open in the coming weeks, Curbside sits in a 110 year-old building, one that Bailey says is “impossible” to renovate. As such, Curbside cannot provide a separate, ventilated room for smokers, which is the only recourse public restaurants have if they want to legally offer an indoor smoking section. As a result, Curbside smokers venture outside, which has irritated local residents because of the increased noise and litter of cigarette butts. Although Bailey has noticed a drop off in business since the ban was implemented, there is the possibility that the decreased revenue mirrors that of the recent economic recession, which was in full swing at about the time the ban took effect. Not all businesses, however, noticed such a downturn.

The Fan’s Joe’s Inn saw an uptick in customers, especially smokers, when the ban took effect. The restaurant already had two separate sections, one of which they easily designated as a smokers side. “Pretty much every smoker came into the smoking side,” says Katie Price of Joe’s Inn. Although the smoker-friendly environment was a boon for business, it ultimately proved to be a double-edge sword. Price says that Joe’s Inn “…couldn’t control how smokey it was,” as smoke ended up wafting into the smoke free side. This past March the restaurant implemented policy preventing smoking before 10pm, which seems to have appeased their non-smoking clientele. Some venues noticed little difference in business after Virginia implemented the smoking ban.

Tobacco Company, an upscale bar and restaurant in Shockoe Bottom, seems relatively unaffected. Of business post-smoking ban, Shannon Siriano, Director of Restaurant Marketing, says that Tobacco Company “has not really noticed a big change.” The restaurant has also been able to avoid the problem of displaced smokers congregating outside the restaurant. Siriano says that there is rarely “a group of people smoking on the side walk.” Thursdays through Saturday, the restaurant opens its downstairs club, which allows indoor smoking on typically the busiest nights of the week. But data indicates that the clientele of upscale restaurants are less likely to smoke, as a correlation exists between higher incomes and less indulgence in smoking.

For some businesses, however, the smoking ban provided needed cover to implement a long-desired no-smoking policy. Ipanema, located near VCU, has low ceilings and, as a result, smoke lingers for longer periods. Customers named this phenomenon “Ipanema Emphysema.” Going smoke free, however, was not a viable option for Ipanema before the legislation. Such a decision would “kill our business,” says Kendra Feather, owner of Ipanema, whose eyes would burn from the surfeit of smoke loitering on nights she tended bar. Because of the state-sanctioned ban “we were able to stay competitive.” Voluntary smoking bans would have put non-smoking bars at a competitive disadvantage. Although some bars might have adopted a no-smoking policy at their discretion, most would not, believes Feather, for fear of revenue depletion. The mandated law put businesses on equal competitive footing. Additionally, the ban has minimized costs to Ipanema’s routine maintenance. “We don’t have to repaint our walls every six months,” says Feather. “It’s happier and healthier.”

Depending upon certain constraints; the ability to offer both a smoking and non-smoking section, and the typical income-level of patrons, businesses fair in varying ways. Those that can offer both a smoking and non-smoking section are the best at handling the smoking preferences of customers. Those businesses, like Curbside, who cater to a clientele that prefers smoking, however, are left to make do. Matt Bailey tells me one of the perks of the ban was the he does not smell like smoke at the end of every night. “But I like having more money,” he adds.

Photo by: SuperFantastic


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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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