Niagara Gazette

August 14, 2013

DELUCA: Smoking ban burns bars

Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — "Sometimes you want to go 

Where everybody knows your name,

and they're always glad you came."

— Theme song for "Cheers"


I walked into Judi's Lounge the other day and felt just like I had entered into an episode of that old TV show "Cheers."

It was a late August afternoon in the Military Road tavern near the outlet mall and two Canadian ladies had just finished lunch. Somebody shouted "Happy Shopping," as they walked out the door. Around the edge of the bar, a small group of regulars were enjoying each other's company. 

I had stopped in to talk to owner Judi Justiana about the 10-year anniversary of the state's Clean Air Act. She told me the ban completely changed things for local neighborhood bars. And a lot of the regulars that kept her bar busy until late into the evenings 10 years ago have disappeared. 

Things change. She knows that. But, as the leader of a band of area bar owners and others, who loudly protested against the state's Clean Air Act a decade ago, she's still a bit ticked off about the trampling on her freedom as a business owner. 

"I wasn't fighting whether smoking is good for you or not," she said. "It's my business. I'm the one working so hard and I didn't want the legislature or the government coming in and telling me who I can and cannot serve."

The state appears to be deeply intent on keeping the public safe — raising the drinking age, lowering allowable blood-alcohol levels and raising penalties for drunken driving. 

And she knows all of that is a good thing for a culture. It just makes it near impossible to run a bar business. 

Anyone who's ever sat on a bar stool, enjoying the company of a few friends while indulging in a cold drink, can likely understand how the law dealt a blow to a beloved American tradition. In a country where too many people smoke and drink to an excess, and too many lives are destroyed by addictions, it's easy to agree that the law is a good thing. But, for bar owners, it was not. 

"It affected everybody," she said of the tavern owners who joined her in protesting the law 10 years ago. "The business that were already teetering, they toppled.

"We were told, 'Once this law goes into effect, it will help your food business,' and in a way, that happened. But the bottom line is I'm not making as much money selling food.

"My business took a big dip — about 15 percent — that's huge because we don't work on a huge markup," she said.

Judi's doing everything she can to adapt.  She's enhanced the lunch and dinner menu and is thinking of adding a small banquet room. Her daughter, Maria, 27, has hired a few friends to try and draw a younger crowd. Judi's also thinking about encouraging "vaping" for those who smoke water vapor cigarettes.

Ultimately, she knows that good came from the law.  A state Department of Health study showed hospitalizations for heart attacks has decreased significantly. It is estimated in the first year alone, there were approximately 3,800 fewer hospital admissions for heart attacks with an estimated cost savings of $56 million. Exposure to secondhand smoke has also been reduced by one third for middle and high school students, the study showed. Still, smoking remains the top cause of preventable death and costs the state $8 billion annually.

Even in Judi's tavern, things have improved. Though Judi quit before the ban, most of her small staff have quit smoking since then. Still, for Judi it keeps going back to the matter of freedom. The argument is ten years old, but many don't understand the problem with a group of consenting adults being allowed to smoke if everyone involved is in agreement?

As we talked, two regulars, Karen and Nancy, got up to head outside for a smoke. The ladies said they approve of the ban. But they talked about how the laws are making life increasingly uncomfortable for smokers, tightening restrictions everywhere. Like the 90-year-old they know of who lives in a senior residence and is forced to walk through the parking lot to smoke in peace. "I'm smoking since I'm 14. I'm 62-years-old. You think I'm not going to smoke?" Karen asked me. 

Some might say that loss of certain freedoms is acceptable if people are safer. But, here's the odd thing. Judi tells me a lot of the young people coming into the bar these days are smokers and they don't mind a bit having to go outside. So, those young people are not really much safer. But, Judi seems to think they are a little bit less free.