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Happy Birthday, Smoking Ban

Bar owners see sales decline one year after smoking ban passes

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Phil Howard still drinks. And he still smokes. But one year after a citywide smoking ban extinguished the co-mingling of the once inseparable vices at Boise watering holes, the two are less intertwined and frequent for Howard and other local tobacco aficionados. Smokers, it turns out, are all right with that. Mostly.

"It takes me a lot longer to drink now," Howard said.

Figure the average smoke break takes three to five minutes. Now subtract that time from a night of drinking and you'll see a dent in the time devoted solely to imbibing.

"It now takes me four hours to drink as opposed to two efficient hours," the 10th Street Station regular said. "As a whole, I do spend less money."

And drink-slingers are not cool with that.

"People come in and then go outside to smoke and I'm losing business because they're not smoking and drinking," said 10th Street bartender Dan Krejci.

Business owners who used to operate inside a wall of secondhand smoke say the ban has snuffed out sales, causing a trickle-down of losses. And nonsmokers are not filling in the gaps.

The Boise city ordinance that prohibits smoking in bars, parks and along the Greenbelt, put an immediate dent in 10th Street's business during the early months of 2012, forcing what was once the unofficial smokiest bar in Boise to lay off an employee and institute novel business strategies.

"This is the first time in 30 years that 10th Street has had to reinvent itself," Krejci said. "We heard the big rumors, 'Oh, you'll be back in six months.' But that hasn't happened."

The Boise City Council passed the smoking ban in late 2011, citing overriding health concerns for service employees and nonsmoking patrons despite opposition from area businesses owners who said the ban could hurt profits. Employees are inhaling cleaner air but local restaurant and bar owners say they've seen revenue dwindle since they were forced to go smoke-free.

Some smokers have found ways to accommodate the ordinance. Sales of smokeless e-cigarettes temporarily boomed at 10th Street in the early days of the ban. Others now flock to establishments with cozy, heated patios or head straight to Garden City, where there is no ban. But for the most part, owners see smokers ducking outside for a quick, legal drag or not coming in at all.

"It's been horrible. I'm sitting here right now trying to figure how I'm going to pay $8,000 in property taxes," said Lisa Sullivan of Quinn's Restaurant and Lounge. "I've robbed Peter to pay Paul all year long."

Even the hair-of-the dog brunch at Quinn's hasn't been enough to keep patrons packing the booths to shake a hangover.

"The whole time I've been saying, 'Where are all these nonsmokers who said that they would come to Quinn's when it's nonsmoking?" asked Sullivan.

Sullivan and her father, Gary Sullivan, have rolled with the smoking ban and the Great Recession, keeping Quinn's in operation for more than four decades. They even erected a wall between the bar and restaurant of Quinn's when the city passed a smoke-free measure for restaurants, but Lisa says there's nothing they can build to fill the dent left by the absent smokers.

"We've been here 42 years and we've never experienced anything like this," Lisa said.

Sales have fallen by 30 percent in the last year at Quinn's. A 16-year veteran staffer lost her job in a subsequent layoff, a janitor was scaled back to part-time and food orders are down.

"There's a ripple effect. The people and the companies that bring us the food and the liquor are suffering now, too, because they're not making their quotas and they're not getting their bonuses," Lisa said.

"I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel. You name it and I've tried it" Lisa added.

Apparently, all roads now lead to Garden City.

"I dropped into the Ranch Club and I knew 80 percent of the clientele from here," Krejci said.

Symposion is also losing some of its clientele to Garden City.

"The ban has caused a decrease in business," said Sympoison's Carly Novis. "We are right next to Garden City, so the customers who might have come here are going to Garden City to smoke."

By all measures, business is booming at the Garden City's Ranch Club. Cars pack the club's lot on Saturday nights and puffs of smoke greet a steady stream of patrons. But co-owner Al Vogt isn't quick to credit the ban for a spike in business.

"I'm not a big fan of the law that went into effect in Boise," Vogt said. "I have seen a slight increase in business. It hasn't been as much as people think. ... In the three years since I've bought into the club, business has steadily been going up."

Though a relocation to Garden City isn't in the works for any of the businesses Boise Weekly interviewed, Sympoison does have a smoking patio on its agenda.

Smokers say live music remains a big draw, ban or no ban. Several chilly December nights had the once notoriously smoky Neurolux packed with patrons. Metal riffs and thunderous beats blew out the front door along with smokers lighting Camels, Pall Malls and American Spirits.

But when the music comes from a jukebox, smokers need another draw.

Vista Bar manager Kyle Vorse said a heated outdoor patio has helped prevent some smokers from leaving the bar, and Mulligans also has patios that lure patrons in.

Mulligans bartender Ben Spellman said a steady stream of drink orders and clean air is just fine for him. Years of bartending left him with chronic respiratory infections and sometimes pneumonia. Doctors said Spellman's lungs looked like those of a smoker.

"I love bartending, but my doctor said I have to quit. I said, 'Are you going to pay my bills?'" Spellman asked. "This is the first winter season that I haven't been sick. I attribute it to the ban. It's the only thing that's changed."

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