News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

September 1, 2010

Stephanie Salter: The future is here, and it looks like smoke-free bars

TERRE HAUTE — I realize I have little standing with many folks in the cigarette wars because (a) I never smoked and, (b) even worse, I spent almost 30 years in San Francisco. Everybody knows that town is full of quiche eaters who don’t care about their right to smoke at the same time they eat and drink. Why, gold-rushing miners back in 1849 probably outlawed cigarette smoking in every building in Frisco, right?

Wrong.

Although cities such as San Francisco have become synonymous with extremely limited public smoking, it wasn’t always so. They all went through the contentious process in which Terre Haute and Indiana itself currently are engaged. The major arguments against tough smoking ordinances were the same in 1990s San Francisco — and mid-2000s Bloomington, West Lafayette and Fort Wayne — as they are in 2010 Terre Haute:

n Mom-and-pop bars and restaurants will be driven out of business because smokers will stop coming. If one city or county prohibits smoking in public eateries and lounges, people will just drive to the nearest place they can smoke.

n Smoking bans aren’t about health; they’re about the nanny state infringing on people’s right to do whatever they want with their own lungs.

I heard these arguments — and how tourism would be threatened — during the decade San Franciscans grappled with increasingly tighter anti-smoking laws. (The city is still grappling with updates to the law.) In the early 1990s, Irish bars and comedy clubs, neighborhood diners and singles pick-up joints all cried “government interference” and predicted their own demise. There were protests and pickets, televised debates and the occasional proprietor openly flouting the law despite hefty fines.

The thing is, just as people in the aforementioned Indiana cities subsequently learned, Doomsday never materialized in the San Francisco hospitality industry. A huge majority of diners and bar patrons actually preferred smoke-free eating and drinking. Many people, like me, began to frequent places we’d stopped going to because we no longer smelled like an ashtray when we left.

As in other cities that have adopted indoor clean-air ordinances, the health of bar and restaurant employees also improved, with respiratory illnesses markedly decreased.

Smokers in cities that ban lit cigarettes from enclosed spaces used by the public step outside to light up, inhale and exhale. If it’s cold, they spend less time savoring their cigarette than they do in the privacy of their own home or car. The discomfort and inconvenience come with the territory of smoking — as does paying $7 a pack (or $10 in New York). Both aggravations, many former smokers say, helped them finally kick the habit.

Meanwhile, the best antidote for the handful of people who might waste gas and time to drive to the nearest smoke-filled county or town is legislators who show some guts and pass uniform, statewide nonsmoking laws that are strongly backed by their governor. Indiana’s last attempt, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, passed the House, 70-26, in 2009, but couldn’t even get a committee hearing in the Senate.

Smart, forward-thinking business owners also play a big part in bringing about real changes in societal attitudes toward providing a healthier work and consumer environment. So hats off to the Ballyhoo Tavern for becoming the first smoke-free bar in Terre Haute.

Nobody’s idea of a white-wine-and-quiche joint, the Bally has stood for serious drinking — and some incidental food to soak up the alcohol — since it opened its doors in 1948. But Wednesday, general manager Jay Knott took the bar a level above and banned smoking throughout the entire indoors. People with lighted cigarettes can sit or stand outside on the Bally’s patio.

The next day, Connie Wrin, owner of the Verve, said that downtown venue for drinking and live music would be smoke-free by Labor Day.

Under Vigo County’s existing law, Knott and Wrin didn’t have to do anything because bars are exempt from the 2006 clean indoor air ordinance that was enacted amid much doomsaying and griping. (Right now, restaurants must provide a completely separate smoking room or be smoke-free.) But Knott said he was responding to “a change in our customers’ expectations.”

As he told the Tribune-Star’s Howard Greninger, “We just think the customer has changed. The smoking phenomenon is not what it used to be, there just aren’t nearly as many people who smoke as there used to, but there are a lot more people nowadays that are conditioned to really dislike smoking, especially around food.”

A National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, found that 23.9 percent of the U.S. population — about 60 million people — smoke cigarettes. Another 24 million smoke cigars and pipes or use smokeless tobacco products.

The best news: Smoking rates among junior high and high school kids has been dropping over the past decade. Especially among high school seniors, the percentage of students who smoked within the month of the survey decreased from 36 percent in the late 1990s to 20.1 percent in 2009.  

For most of its life, The Ballyhoo has been located on the eastern edge of Indiana State University’s campus; the Verve is a block south of ISU. Knott’s and Wrin’s move to go smoke-free indoors reflects the national survey figures. Younger people, even those who do smoke, don’t necessarily want cigarettes to permeate their work and play environment.

“We thought it was time to make a change and make a statement that we agree with those people and we want it to be a comfortable atmosphere for everyone,” Knott told Greninger.

All but the deeply addicted — who are either in denial or feel helpless to stop smoking — understand that a smoke-free Bally and Verve is great news. It is also a harbinger of the way things are going to be here in Terre Haute, sooner or later.

Other bar owners — and the seven holdout restaurants with smoking rooms they inflict on their servers — would be wise to follow The Ballyhoo’s and Verve’s lead.

Honest, folks, I’ve seen what happens. Unlike cigarette smoking, clean indoor air won’t kill you or your customers.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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