Cigarettes and coffee

Since Starbucks and smoking bans seem to be the only topics featured here lately, a post combining the two seems natural. A few posts ago I speculated about why we don’t have more bars catering to non-smokers. The opposite is true for coffee shops; smokefree options abound. This is despite the fact that tobacco and coffee seems to be just as much an established combination among some people as tobacco and alcohol is with others. Why the difference?

A comment left on Dan Drezner’s weblog entry about my previous Starbucks article is intriguing:

First, Starbucks changed Tokyo, where I lived for nearly five years in the mid-to-late 90s, for the better. Before Starbucks, it was impossible to find a non-smoking coffee shop and nearly impossible to find a coffee shop with a non-smoking section that meant anything. When I asked my friends and co-workers why doesn’t someone open a non-smoking coffee shop to cater to the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of coffee drinkers who don’t smoke, they all uniformly poo-pooed the idea. It would never work. And then Starbucks muscled their way into Tokyo in a few locations and the place was packed consistently.

I haven’t been able to find any authoritative articles about Starbucks and smoking. However, as Starbucks has expanded into countries where smoking is more ingrained in the culture than it is in the US the company’s non-smoking policies have often been an issue. The repeated pattern seems to be that outsiders predict failure and are proven wrong when the stores succeed. Searching through the Google results for “Starbucks” and “smoking” uncovers some interesting anecdotes.

One of the more interesting finds is this Japan, Inc. article on how Starbucks’ entrance into Japan has impacted the country’s largest coffee chain, Doutour. The biggest effect has been the predictable increase in demand for specialty coffee. Starbucks made consumers willing to pay higher prices. Doutour took advantage of the situation by expanding its line of high-end stores, called Excelsior Caffe. Since then Starbucks and Excelsior have become rivals, the latter differentiating itself by its food offerings, smoking areas, and brighter lighting. Starbucks helped expand the market for gourmet coffee and created the market for smokefree coffee shops. Now Japanese consumers can enjoy good coffee in smoking or non-smoking atmospheres, depending on their preference. Read the whole article here.

A similar pattern seems to be at work in China. I didn’t find much on the subject, but this undergrad research paper reports that the non-smoking aspects of Starbucks stores has received a surprisingly welcome reception. The sample size in the smoking survey is rather small, however.

An article in Expatica looks at how Starbucks has been received in Spain. There, the clean, smokefree Starbucks are finding a ready clientele among women, Americans, and the “metropolitan elite.” Meanwhile, traditional Spanish cafes offering alcohol and a place to smoke continue to thrive.

Breaking into Viennese cafe culture was even harder, with Starbucks closing two of its stores in the city. Selling their no smoking policy required some finesse:

But reactions to the nonsmoking policy have been only positive, Holzschuh insisted. Signs in Starbucks read: “Aroma-Schutz durch rauchfreien Raum” — aroma protection through a smoke-free space — and then thank the customers for their understanding. “We looked for a sentence that said, ‘Dear guest, it’s not about your health, it’s about the coffee,’” he said.

The lack of cigarettes and alcohol put Starbucks at somewhat of a disadvantage, but it has apparently made the place an oasis for non-smokers and mothers with children. The larger stigma the chain has had to overcome is customers’ false belief that they’ll have to drink from a paper cup when they go there.

This last example is my favorite. Blogger “Lounsbury” takes down a LiveJournaler whining about the Starbucks that opened up next to his favorite Amman hangout, The Blue Fig. In addition to railing against new, elitist forms of coffee like the soy latte, he laments that Starbucks is destroying his culture by enticing people to enjoy coffee without smoking:

This is what really bothers me. It’s not that they’re ruining the service for Blue Fig or even Nescafe (which has always been Jordan’s choice for coffee), and not that they’ve introduced these elitist forms of coffee, but that they’ve annihilated our culture by depriving a new generation of the beauty of having a smoke with your coffee. Smoking is such a large part of our culture, and Starbucks is slowly making the new generation smoke-free. I can just see it now: in twenty years you won’t even be able to smoke in an elevator in Jordan anymore. This thought makes me nauseous and very helpless. Last night I even cried for like, five minutes.

Lounsbury replies:

So it is imperialism to have a Jordanian use an American brand of his own volition, because he rightly judged there is a completely uncoerced native Jordanian demand for something other than the usual fare. (Never mind the risible posing that somehow Blue Fig is not elitist….) Of course we should leave aside the utterly incoherent idiocy with regards to imposing smoking with coffee. Fetishizing one’s own preferences as “Arab” or “Jordanian” culture is rather more imperialistic than merely offering a choice (never mind the silliness of fetishizing smoking as something of Arab culture per se).

This contemptible idiocy is precisely the kind of moronic half-baked thinking that drives anti-globalisation movements. Inept, ill-informed self indulgent idiocy.

I like this Lounsbury character. I’ll have to start reading him.

Enough examples. Let’s look at the common threads. All of these countries had a strong culture of enjoying tobacco and coffee together. Outsiders predicted smokefree Starbucks would fail. Instead, Starbucks succeeds by offering a market alternative that no one else thought was feasible. The question is, why Starbucks and not a local competitor?

This is speculative, but perhaps it comes down to the consumer base. Part of the pattern seems to be that the corporation appeals to two fairly distinct groups. One is the women, mothers, and non-smokers who just don’t want to be in a smoky room. The other is the young, fashionable, urban elite. The latter is attracted not by the smokefree atmosphere per se, but rather by the cultural statement going to a Starbucks provides.

Any local cafe in these countries could have tried prohibiting smoking, but they would have been perceived as just like the other local cafes except not as good because they don’t let customers smoke. They might have had a shot at the first group of Starbucks consumers, but not the second, dynamic group seeking cultural innovation. Starbucks accelerated a transition toward smokefree coffee options that otherwise would have taken longer.

Keeping this process in mind, it starts to make more sense that coffee shops in the US are often smokefree while bars have been slower to change. Our cafe culture is younger, and therefore more open to the non-smoking model. In addition, coffee is recognized as a high-end beverage with important aromatics. The sign in Vienna declaring “aroma protection through a smoke-free space” would seem ridiculously out of place in the average American bar.

In short, American bar culture isn’t doing anything as transformative as cafe culture. It tinkers around the edges and comes up with creative new drinks, but doesn’t do anything to really change the experience of going to a bar. Smokefree bars appeal to people who really want that sort of atmosphere, but otherwise do little to distinguish themselves from the competition. (And as I’ve said before, I think the number of consumers who really care about this factor is small.) Thus they don’t get the accelerated acceptance in the US that smokefree Starbucks gets around the world. The change is more gradual — frustratingly so to the nanny state types who demand non-smoking everywhere, all the time, NOW.

That’s a lot of theory with not a lot of data points, so I could be very off the mark. Any thoughts?


  1. ccobb says:

    As a former brand director for Starbucks (’95 to ’00), we entered Europe and Asia after having had a pretty focused debate on this very topic. But we had already seen the results of smoke-free environments in our backyard — our first international markets were in Canada, with Montreal and Toronto a particular test of the concept. The reason is actuall fundamental to the way Starbucks percives itself, and something you imply above — the coffee department was, is and always will be run by some of the foremost coffee tasters and purists in the world. Yes indeed, they work at Starbucks.

    Put simply, the smoke ruins the aroma, and it permeates the beans and the grounds, thereby ruining the taste. For the same reason, baristas are not allowed to wear perfume to work, and why Starbucks adds flavors like vanilla in the cup rather than infusing the beans. Love it or hate it, Starbucks has an intense focus on taste and smell.


  1. No smoking in the Starbucks

    A hot issue on my own weblog has been DC’s much contested ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. Of course, I prefer market solutions to an all-out ban, but even some of my usually libertarian readers argued that there…

Leave a Comment