Small-bar owners fuming over losses under smoking ban

Some Michigan bar and restaurant owners say they’ve been so burned by Michigan’s smoking ban they’ll let patrons light up on New bar in DetroitYear’s Eve in protest.

“(Business owners) have had enough,” said Stephen Mace, spokesman for Protect Private Property Rights in Michigan, a group that represents about 300 establishments.

“Why are we taking the decision-making away from adults? I don’t understand it. The bar owners are losing money. Enough is enough.”

Mace said this week several hundred owners are thinking about joining in the protest, which is planned to begin at 9 p.m. or after all minors have left.

The planned action comes as Michigan health and treasury officials report the ban — which began May 1 — hasn’t hurt business.

Officials say the number of liquor licenses that wound up in escrow — an indicator of when establishments shutter or stop serving booze — decreased from May 1 to Nov. 12 compared with the same period last year, down to 240 from 278.

The Michigan Department of Treasury also reports that sales tax collections are up 2.84 percent over last year at taverns and restaurants since the ban on smoking in bars, private clubs and restaurants. Casino gaming floors, cigar bars and tobacco specialty shops are exempt.

First-time offenders can be fined $100. Subsequent offenses can net fines of $500.

Authorities received 486 reports of ban violations from May 1 to Aug. 31, according to the latest totals released by the state. Officials issued 158 citations, but fine collections weren’t available.

Bar owners who have permitted smoking despite the ban say enforcement is varied, and the ban, in some cases, has pitted businesses against each other, with law-abiding bars tattling on their more permissive competitors.

“We think it is working out fine,” said James McCurtis, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Community Health. “Long-term, we think it will be that way, too. A whole different set of clientele will come out.”

But the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association recently released a survey of 2,500 establishments that found they lost an average of 20.62 percent of business over the first three months of the ban.

About 400 small bar and restaurant owners, whose businesses make less than $250,000 annually, reported losses of more than 27 percent over the same three months.

They are bars like the Wild Cherry Lounge on Eight Mile in Detroit. Its owners, Keri and Gary Webber, put their liquor license in escrow in September after watching crowds plummet before and after the ban.

“It just killed our business,” said Keri Webber.

“A lot of our customers were scared they would be ticketed.”

“We let them smoke anywhere and even that didn’t work.

We told them they could smoke until they (the state) started cracking down. But we kept losing business and had to close.”

Earlier this year, some bars and restaurants protested the ban by refusing to sell Club Keno lottery tickets.

State Lottery Commission data show that sales decreased by 14.15 percent from May to September compared with the same period last year. The decrease is equal to $29.4 million.

“It’s chasing my customers off,” bartender Casi Zehel, 32, of Wyandotte, said recently while taking a smoke break outside Hoots on the Avenue in Detroit. “It should be up to the owners. I work for tips. It is leaving me in a bad spot.”

McCurtis said business will increase over time as those who shunned formerly smoky bars and restaurants return to them.

A study conducted by the state in September showed more than 70 percent of Michiganians favored the ban and more than 80 percent believe second-hand smoke is a health risk.

“We aren’t going to change everyone’s mind about this law,” he said. “Overall, Michiganians are in favor of the law. That is why the Legislature tackled it.”

Dan Kirby, a manager at the Spartan Hall of Fame Café in East Lansing, said the ban hasn’t hurt his business and credited good sales to the success of the Michigan State University football team.

“Even our hardcore smokers still come in,” Kirby said.

Critics argue that some areas — traditionally blue-collar towns — have been impacted more than others, saying happy hours have been anything but, and that rain and snow guarantee a dead night.

They feel the ban unfairly lumps mom-and-pop bars, such as Hippo’s in Hamtramck, in with national chains and large entertainment venues.

The property rights group wants to amend the law so the smaller establishments would be exempt. Hippo’s seats about two dozen people, doesn’t serve food and lets customers in via an electronic buzzer.

“In a little bar that doesn’t serve food — I can’t see it,” said manager Mike Ostin, a smoker. “I would be better off opening a bar in communist Russia. I’d have more rights.”

Lance Binoniemi, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said any changes would require Gov.-elect Rick Snyder and members of the next Legislature to examine the ban for tweaks when they take office next year.

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