Got a Light? . . .
An increasing number of local bars, restaurants, and venues are prohibiting smoking where it once was allowed.
As of August 1, 2006, all bars and restaurants that allow smoking in Jefferson County are required to post a decal at all main entrances. The sticker is a consumer warning that declares “toxic or poisonous items” are present. This past summer the Jefferson County Health Department announced that “failure by the management to post the consumer warning at all times will result in a one point deduction [on the health inspection report].” In addition, any restaurant, lounge, or convenience store that allows smoking, regardless of whether the decal is present, automatically has four points deducted from its health rating score.According to Wayne Studyvin, director of environmental health services for the Jefferson County Health Department, what prompted the local bureaucratic cracking of the whip on secondhand smoke was U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona’s June 2006 conclusion that secondhand smoke is a proven health hazard to which there is no risk-free level of exposure.
Because smoking rules and regulations differ from municipality to municipality, the county health department determined that a rule was needed to bring municipalities and unincorporated areas of the county into some uniform compliance. “To make it a level playing field, they would have to have that [consumer warning] sticker on their door,” explains Virginia Bozeman, tobacco prevention coordinator for Jefferson County. “We have a lot of unincorporated areas, so they have to operate under the county. So they would more or less have an advantage over those establishments that do operate under a government [with a smoking ordinance]. We have to do something that would make those unincorporated areas accountable for allowing smoking.”
Wes Humphryes, manager of Billy’s in English Village (which allows smoking after 4 p.m.), was not aware of the county’s sticker requirement. (One county health employee told me that all smoking establishments had been stickered as far as he was aware, and another said that some businesses may not have been stickered yet.) “Really?” Humphryes responded when told that four points would be deducted from Billy’s health rating for allowing smoking. Humphryes said that when four in the afternoon arrives, “we do more drinks than food, so it’s just more of a bar. [Smoking] hasn’t hurt our business.”
In addition to the Jefferson County ordinance, some businesses operate under stricter rules. In the spring of 2005, the Birmingham City Council passed an ordinance that made smoking indoors against the law everywhere but in bars (which the city defines as any establishment whose primary revenue comes from selling alcohol). T.C. Cannon, a former mayoral candidate and longtime owner of the TC bar in Lakeview, was outspoken against the ban at the time. “It will open a big can of worms,” said Cannon. “To restrict this to Birmingham is definitely a grave injustice to the business owners in this city.”
Eighteen months later, Cannon has not changed his mind. “Those four [deducted] points are pretty brutal in this business . . . But I am licensed and pay taxes and fees as a restaurant even though I don’t serve food, except packaged goods. And any infringement or any further controls over the hospitality industry—any restaurants or bars [is not good].” Cannon said doing business in Jefferson County is very difficult, especially “with City Hall, which I have always found to be anti-business.”
Jackson’s Bar and Bistro is a new restaurant in Homewood that has chosen to go non-smoking despite the fact that Homewood doesn’t require it to be smoke-free. Owner Tom Sheffer also owns restaurants in Nashville that allow smoking, but he says he prefers non-smoking. “We decided from the get-go we were going to be non-smoking in Birmingham . . . It’s the trend.” Regarding Jefferson County’s rule that forces bars and restaurants to post stickers warning of the dangers of secondhand smoke, Sheffer said that the decals are something he does not want posted in his business. Jackson’s does allow smoking on the patio. “My choice was based on coming into a city that is going non-smoking already,” says Sheffer. “To me, that is a pretty strong statement, if an area wants to go non-smoking. I’ll be honest, I do think it hurts late-night bar business a little to not have smoking . . . But we’re still getting a good bar business. People are willing to hop outside and smoke a cigarette and hop back in.”
Antonio Minnifield of Lakeview’s Amani Raha Martini Bar has lived in California and New York, where indoor smoking has been banned for several years. Minnifield said that he wanted to ban smoking from the time he opened his business, regardless of the city’s no smoking ordinance. Secondhand smoke can make a pristine martini bar filthy. “It’ll turn a white couch black,” said Minnifield. “California and New York have smoking bans, so I just wanted no smoking in here as well.” Minnifield added that he didn’t think Amani would be affected at all. “If New York and California can [ban smoking], then anybody can.”
Other restaurants that cater to a late-night clientele have also gone smoke-free. Belinda Hyatt, office manager of Southside’s Rojo, said that her customers prefer non-smoking by a slim margin. The change has not affected business. “We get a lot of smokers, it’s pretty much down the middle. The smokers will go to an establishment if it’s smoke-friendly or not.” Rojo does allow smoking on its patio, as do many non-smoking businesses.
Merrilee Challiss, co-owner of the Bottletree Café, a new restaurant and live music venue in Avondale, never gave their smoking policy a second thought. “For me it was very simple,” she says, “I told my partners when we started that it was a non-negotiable issue. The response from our customers has been very favorable. Plus, smoking customers can still use our patio.” Challiss points out that the biggest fans of the no-smoking rule have been the touring bands, often relieved not to be playing in another smoky bar.
The Comedy Club in Hoover had allowed smoking until this past August, when the health department stipulated the warning stickers and the automatic deduction of points on the health rating. Owner Bruce Ayers decided to prohibit smoking. “Well, the health department deal certainly had an effect . . . It played a factor to me because I think that rating is very important. And I think people look at that. If you have a 90 and all of a sudden it’s an 86, I think that’s a big difference.” Ayers added that complaints about smoking also played a role. “We were getting so many complaints from [non-smoking] customers. Eventually everybody is going to be non-smoking . . . I just wanted to be proactive. I just think it’s going to help our business.” When asked why the Comedy Club did not ban smoking sooner, Ayers explained, “It used to be that when we first opened, it was all smoking. Then we had a very small non-smoking section. And then, over the years, it went to where we were pretty much 80 percent non-smoking, and the smoking seats weren’t filling up. So it made business sense to me that the non-smoking thing seemed like the right thing to do. And I still think it is . . . It’s tough for smokers, I know it is. But I think this is the wave of the future . . . They’re doing it in New York, they’re doing it in California. Smoking is killing people. It’s almost like a no-brainer.”
Vestavia has outlawed smoking everywhere but bars. However, the recently closed Moonlight Music Cafe, a live music venue that catered to fans of acoustic music, was non-smoking from its inception several years ago. “That was a choice of my own,” said Keith Harrelson, owner of the bar. “We had a good crowd of people who chose not to smoke. Most bars and nightclubs attract people who do.”
T.C. Cannon admits that non-smokers and “secondhand smoke freaks” often complain about the smoke in his bar. He says that those who don’t like his smoking policy can go elsewhere. “The businessperson, particularly the independent, should be able to determine what type of business that he runs. And to try to legislate everything that is detrimental to our health—we’ll just legislate ourselves to death. And that’s a hell of a way to go, I guess.” Regarding secondhand smoke, T.C. added, “You want empirical data? I spent 45 years working at the old Upside Down Plaza and TC. I was raised in the back of a beer joint as a kid. If secondhand smoke were a problem, I’d have been dead a long time ago.” &