Is smoking good for business?
FALL RIVER -- City restaurant owners said they would go out of business if the Board of Health bans smoking in restaurants.
But a restaurant owner from another community said business went up after she banned smoking, and claimed other restaurant owners have had the same experience.
Public health advocates cited the overwhelming scientific evidence that secondhand smoke kills non-smokers.
But citizens pleaded for government bureaucracy not to impose more regulations on them, and allow businesses the right to choose their own smoking or non-smoking policies.
Those were some of the arguments made during a public hearing Wednesday night, when the Board of Health heard the pros and cons of a possible smoking ban in restaurants.
"A smoking ban is a passionate and emotional issue," said Rick Sahady, board chairman, after the hearing. "There is no pleasing everybody. We are responsible for public health, but the economic arguments are too powerful and prevalent to be ignored."
Sahady said he and the other two members of the board will meet within the next three weeks and consider motions on a total ban, partial ban, increased restrictions, or keeping things as they are. Sahady said he would support a smoking ban only with the stipulation that it be enacted in Somerset and Swansea as well.
A smoking ban in restaurants took effect on Jan. 3 in New Bedford, Dartmouth and Fairhaven, and restaurant owners have been protesting in those communities during the past week.
People speaking in favor of a smoking ban in restaurants and those opposed to a ban, split evenly, eight to eight, last night. More than 50 people attended the public hearing in the Council Chamber. Board of Health staff and board members all said they expected more speakers and a bigger turnout, given the number of calls they received on the issue in recent weeks.
"People come into my place to watch a sports event, smoke, and have a drink," said Joe Cleary, owner of the Nashua Cafe. "With a ban, I would not survive. You would put me out of business. I'm too old to start in another business."
"Of the 480,000 smoking-related deaths in this country each year, 53,000 can be attributed to passive smoking," said Linda C. Aguiar, regional executive for cancer control for the American Cancer Society. "I ask you: Why would any of us, given the facts, allow patrons and workers to be subjected to a known killer?"
In New Bedford, Dartmouth and Fairhaven, restaurants can continue to allow smoking if they do not allow anyone under 18 years of age to enter.
"I would hope the Fall River Board of Health does not make the mistake of the New Bedford Board of Health and give the restaurants the preposterous choice of declaring themselves adult-only establishments and banning families," said City Councilor Alfredo Alves, owner of the T.A. Restaurant, pleading for a compromise.
Alves said many small restaurants could not survive with a total smoking ban. "Fall River still has a large smoking population," he said. "None of us who work in restaurants wants to go home smelling of smoke. We wish there was no smoking in our restaurants. But it is an economic issue."
Evelyn Bettencourt, who owns Fay's Too, a restaurant in South Dartmouth, said her business increased this month, since imposition of the smoking ban, compared to business at the same time last year. She said she knows other restaurant owners who have had the same experience.
Bettencourt said 500 food establishments in the New Bedford area are operating successfully under the smoking ban, while a minority of only about 15 establishments are making all the noise and leading the protests.
Aguiar cited a study done by the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice which compiled taxable sales receipts in New York City and in Massachusetts towns that have smoking bans, and compared them to areas of the state without smoking bans. Business increased proportionately more where smoking is banned, said the study.
"A small restaurant will not survive financially in this city," disagreed Ferris J. Ganem, owner of Joe's Family Restaurant in Fall River. "I serve a lot of smokers. I also have a non-smoking section. It should be the people's choice on whether they want to walk in, or not."
Daniel Robillard, a city resident, supported those arguments. "Let the free market decide," he said. "Let the public decide if they want to eat smoke-free or not."
Robillard said fried foods are also a health risk. Does that mean that fast-food chains specializing in that line of food should be closed? Of course not, he answered. "We don't need more regulations," he said. "We need more freedom."
Jim Kiley, area manager of 99 Restaurants in Dartmouth and Fairhaven, said he has seen a decline of business since the smoking ban took effect in those communities. "People are going elsewhere," he said.
"Both firsthand and secondhand smoking cause and aggravate disorders of the lungs, heart, nose, eyes, sinuses, circulation and other organs as well," said Dr. William C. Sheehan of Truesdale Clinic. "If people were polluting our water supply, we would legislate against such pollution. We should do no less when people pollute our air."
D.J. Wilson, tobacco control director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said 28 communities in the state have a total smoking ban, and another 77 cities and towns, with a total population of 1.5 million, have a smoking ban in all dining areas. These communities allow smoking in bar areas. A smoking ban in dining areas may be a viable compromise in a community like Fall River, he said.
Keith Almeida, a peer leader with FRESH, said he believed restaurants should be smoke-free.
Ed Sweda, with the Tobacco Control Resource Center, said smoking bans have been contested in four communities with lawsuits, and the smoking ban was upheld in each instance.
"We are predominantly a working class city," said John Cabral, manager of St. Michael's Club. "Imposing a smoking ban will negatively impact a lot of businesses. A lot more research should be done."
Audrey Poitras, president of the Niagara Neighborhood Association, said small restaurants already struggle with taxes, insurance costs, utility costs, license and permit fees, and other restrictions, without being hit with a smoking ban that would cut into their customer base.
"We can't expect small businessmen to commit economic suicide," said Fernando Garcia, president of the Portuguese-American Business Association.
Michael Coughlin, representing Partners for a Healthier Community, a coalition of health care providers in the area, cited the many diseases that are caused by smoking and second-hand smoke, and the costs to society.
Susan Dickens, a tobacco treatment specialist at SSTAR, said she sees daily the "devastating effects" of smoking and second hand smoke on people. "Restaurants should be places where individuals and families can go without breathing second hand smoke," she told the board. "Please protect the health of the community."