Nipped in the Butt

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on May 9, 2006

(by Mark Bergin, WorldMag.com) EVERETT, Wash. – Less than a dozen cars speckled the parking lot outside the White Elephant Bar and Grill on a recent Saturday night in this growing Seattle suburb. Inside, most booths and tables sat empty while two electronic dart boards hung unused on the side wall. A handful of customers encircled the restaurant’s lone pool table, sipping beers and conversing easily at normal volume levels. Owners John and Donna Kerns leaned on the end of a deserted bar and watched helplessly as their once buzzing establishment choked to a slow death on its clean, smoke-free air.

So it is for thousands of after-hours entertainment spots nationwide struggling to survive a recent spike in state smoking bans. All but two of the 13 states to outlaw cigarettes in bars and restaurants have done so within the past five years. It’s a trend that leading anti-smoking fundraiser the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation celebrates as progress in its war on “big corporate tobacco.”

But there is nothing big or corporate about the White Elephant. For 54 years, the humble business has carved out a niche among blue-collar workers and amateur singers, providing a festive hub for recreation and karaoke. Six months ago, that hub teemed with activity, drawing several thousand people on any given weekend. Now, business is down more than 50 percent. The Kernses, both in their 60s, have laid off employees and significantly trimmed their hours of operation.

“It’s depressing to watch your business dwindle down to nothing,” Mrs. Kerns said. “It’s a legal product still on the market, and they’re telling me to kick my customers out in the cold and rain to have a cigarette. We live in Washington. It’s wet here.”

The Washington smoking ban, voted into law last November, is the most radical in the country, outlawing cigarette use within 25 feet of public place doors, windows, and entryways—often pushing smokers out from under the shelter of overhangs. The ban does not apply to tribal lands, however, providing Native American casinos a smoker-friendly monopoly.

Implementation has received mixed reviews, with some restaurant owners reporting a slight increase in business as they attract more non-smokers and families. Rob Paulson, owner of the Wedgwood Ale House in Seattle, is thankful for the ban as it spared him the brunt of criticism in converting to a smoke-free dining room—an environment he prefers. “A lot of my staff and a whole bunch of my best clientele are smokers,” he said. “I would have been the bad guy. It would have been pretty traumatic.”

But even Mr. Paulson admits harboring reservations about such state interference with the rights of private businesses. No one was ever forced to patronize a smoker-friendly bar or restaurant, and the number of smoke-free establishments had steadily climbed to match customer demand. That citizens elected to circumvent the free market—voting out tobacco with their ballots instead of their wallets—betrays a growing belief that government should protect majority preferences over individual liberty.

New Jersey became the latest state to affirm that maxim last month with the implementation of its Smoke-Free Air Act, legislation banning smoking in all indoor public places and private workplaces. Several other states are considering similar bans. Forty-six states now feature at least some restrictions on smoking in public places, suggesting a modern-day prohibition could loom on the horizon.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation president Risa Lavizzo-Mourey has made clear her desire to see every city, county, and state in the country legislate a smoke-free environment. She points to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying that cigarette smoke is responsible for 38,000 deaths each year.

Supporters of anti-smoking laws further contend that secondhand smoke victimizes restaurant workers who cannot afford to quit their jobs and seek out smoke-free employment. But White Elephant bartender Jim Harcrow, 32, says he doesn’t need the state to make health decisions for him. He needs a job: “I’d rather deal with a bar full of smoke and get paid than work 18 hours a week and have to stand in line to get food stamps.”

Copyright 2006 WORLD Magazine, May 13, 2006. Reprinted here with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.

Questions

Tuesday’s News Issue is usually a Human Interest story:

  • Human Interest stories differ from the regular news – they are sometimes referred to as “the story behind the story“. 
  • The major news articles of the day tell of the important happenings.  The Human Interest stories tell of how those happenings have impacted the people or places around the story.

1.  On what larger news story is this article based?

2.  Explain the opposite viewpoints on this issue.

3.  About which side of the issue do you think most news outlets tend to write?  Why do you think this is so?

4.  How does this article differ from most stories on this issue?

5.  How many states currently ban cigarette smoking in bars and restaurants?  In the state of New Jersey, the state government made an exception on the smoking ban for all casinos at Atlantic City.  People are allowed to smoke there.  In the state of Washington, the the smoking ban does not apply to tribal lands.  People are allowed to smoke in the Native American casinos.  Why do you think the states made these exemptions?  What do you think of these exceptions? 

6.  Do you think that the writer believes that smoking is not bad for a person’s health?  Explain your answer.

7.  Generally, most people admit that smoking is not good for a person’s health.  Currently though, smoking is legal for people over 18 years of age.
Should the government dictate what legal activities private businesses allow on their own property?  Explain your answer.
If you said yes, consider some other things that are legal but bad for a person’s health, such as fast food restaurants.  Should the food sold at fast food restaurants be regulated by the government?


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Resources

For information on how smoking affects your health, go to the website for the American Lung Association or the Centers for Disease Control.