Among the topics of discussion during the Healthy Savannah Initiative’s first community health forum, hosted at the Civic Center two weeks ago, was the desire to strengthen the restrictions on smoking put in place by the Georgia Smoke Free Air Act of 2005, which banned smoking in most restaurants and workplaces across the state.
The state law left open several loop holes, including exceptions for bars, as well as some restaurants with designated smoking areas.
“We’d like to close that loophole because of the dangers of second hand smoke, particularly to the employees,” says Cristina Gibson, the Director of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention with the Coastal Health District (CHD). “There is no risk free level of exposure to second hand smoke.”
In the battle against lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema, among others, the Healthy Savannah Initiative (HSI), with help from the CHD and the foundation Americans for Non–Smokers’ Rights, would like to join the hundreds of communities across the country that have nixed smoking from bars and restaurants.
“Our goal is to get to city council this month with a model ordinance,” says Paula Kreissler, owner of the Wound Care Clinic and incoming chairperson of the HSI. “That’s the whole push here. Second hand smoke is what’s driving all this.”
Supporters of stronger restrictions argue that health risks associated with second hand smoke impinge upon the rights of nonsmokers, particularly those exposed because of their jobs.
“It’s not a choice that they have; it’s a condition of employment,” says Kreissler.
Although the health advantages of eliminating smoking from more establishments across the city is clear, the full impact of a smoking ban in Savannah is complex and touches upon issues of economics, public safety and quality of life.
Arguments for and against quickly become mired in the opposing forces of anti–tobacco groups versus the corporations of Big Tobacco.
“When you’ve got people who are very passionate and involved in an issue they’re very suspicious of work, whether it has positive or negative impacts to it,” says Chad Cotti, a professor from the University of Wisconsin at Osh Kosh. “They assume you’re making a political statement rather than a scientific one.”
In 2007, Cotti and his colleague Scott Adams, both members of the Economics Department, undertook two significant studies into the effects of smoking bans on communities across the country. Their findings were surprising: Banning cigarettes can affect bars economically and increase the incidence of drunk driving.
Money, money, money
One of the longest running debates surrounding the effects of smoking bans are economic in nature. It’s no secret that bar patrons are often also smokers, and much attention has been given to the question of whether, once drinkers aren’t allowed to smoke, whether they would begin to patronize establishments where they could still smoke and drink.
“There has been discussion that businesses will lose revenue,” says Gibson. “There have been several studies that have said that the smoke free policies actually don’t have an adverse impact on the hospitality industry.”
The numbers, however, may be deceptive, because they are taken in total across several different businesses. While restaurants may see an increase in business, welcoming non–smokers who previously had shied away from smoky eating establishments, bars might be affected differently.
According to Michael J. MacFadden, author of Dissecting Anti–Smokers, the impact for bars in Minnesota’s Twin Cities was actually an 11 percent decrease in bar employment over the three years following passage of the ban.
“Changes in employment are a good gauge of the economic impact on bars and restaurants as staffing decisions reflect patronage,” says the first report by Cotti and Adams, which assessed the economic impact on bars separately from the rest of the hospitality industry.
“When we gathered the data we found that, on average, there was a moderate decline in their business after the pass of a ban, and that’s nationwide,” says Cotti.
The patchwork problem
For bars, the migration of smokers away from their usual watering holes is exacerbated by the lack of equanimity for smoking policies across neighboring jurisdictions: If a smoker can drive across a jurisdictional boundary – a city or county line – to a place where bars still welcome smoking, then they will probably do so.
This exodus from smoke-free bars is what leads to the loss of revenue for business owners. There’s also evidence that it can lead to an increase in drunk driving, according to another report from Cotti and Adams.
“A lot of the increase in drunk driving we were observing was due to cross-border shopping — people crossing jurisdictional boundaries so that they can drink and smoke in whatever establishments are right outside of the jurisdiction of the law,” says Cotti.
If Savannah takes the lead on creating more stringent tobacco policies but those policies are not also adopted by Chatham County as a whole — as well as neighboring counties like Liberty and Bryan, where there is also a higher percentage of adult smokers — then the risk of dangerous behavior and negative economic impacts become more likely.
“It doesn’t mean it overwhelms all the potential health benefits that can occur from eliminating a second hand smoke externality in the public domain,” Cotti told Connect last week.
“We don’t want this to be taken as slight against smoking bans. It’s just one element that goes into determining if a public policy has net benefit for society.”
The last drag
With the number of communities enforcing smoking bans growing quickly, and the overwhelming research detailing the detrimental health effects, it’s clear we’re living in the last days of tobacco, but the solution might not be as simple as pushing smokers outdoors.
“What is very obvious is that leaving the litter of cigarette butts has been a continual concern downtown because we don’t have a vacuum that runs up and down every sidewalk or cleans out the tree wells,” says Lise Sundrla, the Executive Director of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority.
Last year, the SDRA conducted a survey with a grant from Keep America Beautiful to better understand the amount of cigarette butts being discarded in the streets.
“In just a two–day period, they picked up over 4,000 cigarette butts along Broughton Street,” says Sundrla, who adds that the same staff returned to three intersections a month later and found nearly 2,000 cigarette butts had accumulated since their last outing.
Although not everyone encounters issues with second hand smoke everyday, “what does become a continuous issue is the litter that’s left,” says Sundrla.
Worth the effort
By raising issues with the potential change to smoking policy, it’s not in an attempt to undermine the efforts to improve public health. The solution to the second hand smoke problem may not be as simple as it would seem, that doesn’t mean the issue should be abandoned, only further examined.
“The folks who work in those environments – yes, they choose to work there – but given the opportunity, there’s a lot of workers that would prefer not to,” says Kreissler.
There does seem to be pressure on some employees to view smoking as a necessary evil of employment.
“I don’t smoke,” says one bartender, explaining why he’d prefer the change to a smoke free policy, “but if it makes the customers happy than you’ve got deal with it.”
It’s also not only nonsmokers who are supportive of the potential change.
“I personally am a smoker, but wouldn’t mind seeing it pass through,” says Travis Coles, a manager at Club One.
“I would probably smoke far less if I wasn’t allowed to smoke inside.”