I’m supposed to be in Houston right now. Yesterday my bags were packed and, despite being skeptical that my plane home would depart on time, I trudged my luggage through the freshly fallen snow to the train that would take me to the airport. The train wasn’t running. I checked my phone and now neither was my flight. Thirty minutes on hold with Southwest booked me a new ticket on the 24th and three more days in a paralyzed city.
This is all mildly inconvenient for me, but it’s hell for people in the service industry. December is a vital month for them. Because of the record snowfall — the highest for a Portland December since 1968 — my bartender friends are being told not to come into work. Many places aren’t opening at all. Companies are canceling their Christmas party reservations, taking with them all the revenue they’d promised. Combine this with the national recession and 2008 is turning out to be a glum year for area bars and restaurants.
What does this have to do with smoking bans? Oregon’s goes into effect on January 1. By January 2010, the economic uncertainty we’re facing now will hopefully have subsided. And unless it’s another freak year for weather, December will bring its usual boost to Oregon restaurants. If that happens, smoking ban proponents will be able to cite statistics showing that bar and restaurant business went up after the smoking ban, “proving” that they were right and we who oppose the ban had nothing to worry about.
A similar dynamic played out in New York City in March, 2004, a year after the beginning of its smoking ban. The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a report showing that the bar and restaurant business had grown in the year following the ban. Critics countered that the study misleadingly conflated bars and restaurants and neglected to account for the economic recovery following the 9/11 attacks.
Who’s right? I don’t know and I don’t care. As I’ve said before, this is a stupid argument. The financial objections to smoking bans aren’t based on how they affect net hospitality industry revenues, but on how they impact individual smoking-oriented businesses. Generalized statistics obscure the impact on bars that can’t get an exemption, lose customers, and justifiably feel like their rights are being trampled upon. It’s cold comfort to tell them to suck it up because, well, at least their competitors are making money.
If 2009 is a decent year for Oregon’s bars and restaurants, I predict that this is the kind of claim we’re going to hear from local ban supporters. I’d like to go on the record now to point out that such crude analysis should be seen for the irrelevant BS it truly is.