This is a column about smoking bans. But I'm not going to try to change any minds. As topics go, smoking is like abortion. Folks know where they stand.
Still, it's an irresistible subject. The strict smoking ban on the April 8 ballot in Kansas City, Missouri, has brought out big money and warnings about the imperilment of single mothers.
According to yard signs around town, a vote for the ban is a vote for the Man. A smoke-out, the signs say, would crush small businesses. But this "no" campaign is being bankrolled largely by the gang behind Joe Camel. And the numbers suggest that smoking bans aren't the merchant killers they're portrayed to be.
Calling secondhand smoke an occupational hazard, supporters of Question 3 want to make it illegal to light up in enclosed places — bars, restaurants, even tobacco shops. They make an exception, however, for the two casinos in Kansas City.
If voters pass the ban, Kansas City will join Independence, Lee's Summit and Overland Park in the smoke-free-city club. And even if Question 3 fails, smokers will still have to huddle under canopies. That's because in January, the City Council banned smoking in restaurants before 9 p.m., by which time, theoretically, tender-lunged children have left the premises.
A group called the Kansas City Business Rights Coalition has taken the lead in fighting Question 3, the more restrictive ban. Its principal spokesman is Westport property owner Bill Nigro, founder of the Beaumont Club.
A 30-year veteran of Westport, Nigro insists that a strict smoking ban would hurt Kansas City bars, especially if lighting up indoors remains legal in Kansas City, Kansas, and other nearby towns.
"It closes down a lot of small businesses," Nigro says of smoking bans. "It hurts the mom-and-pop shops. A lot of people get laid off work."
Nigro's group is also angry that the city's gambling dens will be able to operate as smokers' havens. "You can't keep giving exemptions on these things," he says. "You gotta make it everywhere."
The casino exemption is unfair, all right. But there's at least some logic to it. City Hall is counting on the Isle of Capri and Ameristar to contribute $17.8 million to next year's budget, so it doesn't want slot fiends migrating to other area casinos because they can't pull on a Doral while they play. The clean-air crowd also likely dreads the prospect of having to campaign against gaming and tobacco money: The Kansas City Business Rights Coalition has received 90 percent of its funding from the parent company of R.J. Reynolds, according to campaign records.
But Nigro's most powerful argument against the ban is the young woman who can't pay her bills because she's not making any tips.
"I got a lot of single moms employed at the Beaumont Club," Nigro says. "You know what? They love their job. They don't want to get a different job. They can provide the best for their family that way."
As Nigro tells it, Westport will become a lonely antique mall if a smoking ban goes into effect. I'm a bit more confident that drinking in midtown will survive an ordinance change, however.
Tax-collection data paint a picture that's much less scary than what Nigro envisions.
The Lee's Summit and Independence smoking bans have been in place for 16 and 12 months, respectively — time enough to see if the removal of ashtrays has hurt revenue for bars and restaurants.
Fact is, it's been mostly business as usual in the eastern suburbs. Numbers at the Missouri Department of Revenue indicate that eating and drinking places in Independence actually increased their sales by 5 percent in the three months after the ban went into effect last March. Sales went up another 4 percent in July, August and September.
Bars and restaurants always do better in the spring and summer than they do in winter. Yet Independence's warm-weather bump last year was even bigger than the one in 2006, before the ban.
In Lee's Summit, eating and drinking establishments' numbers were virtually the same in 2007 as in 2006. When you figure in inflation, unchanged sales equal declining sales. So it seems reasonable to believe that the smoking ban kept some drinkers out of Lee's Summit watering holes.
Justin Bliefnick tended bar at Paddy O'Quigley's in Lee's Summit when the smoking ban went into effect. Bliefnick, who has since changed jobs, says the anti-smoking ordinance slowed sales, especially late at night. "After 11 or 11:30 is when your numbers really dropped," he tells me.
Other bartenders and servers undoubtedly have similar stories. Still, the 0.1 percent increase in bar and restaurant sales posted by Lee's Summit seems to fall short of the apocalypse that supposedly visits Ma and Pa Tavern Owner when smokers get the boot.
Nigro tells me that Lawrence was "devastated" by the smoking ban that went into effect in 2004. But, again, the data tell another story.
On a per-capita basis, places that serve alcohol are nearly twice as abundant in Lawrence as they are in Johnson and Wyandotte counties. Lawrence also has more drinking establishments per resident than its college-town rival, Manhattan, which has no ban. The license numbers square with liquor excise-tax data collected by Michael H. Fox, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at KU Medical Center. Fox determined that Lawrence's smoking ban did not have a significant effect on booze sales.
"Smoking ordinances do not adversely affect the economic health of communities," Fox tells me in an e-mail. "End of story."
I'm not as certain. Other studies have found a relationship between smoking bans and bars shedding employees. An economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis detected a 5 percent decline in dining-tax revenue once Columbia went smoke-free.
A strict smoking ban is bound to create some winners and losers. The Power and Light District's outdoor living room — with its fans, heaters, comfy benches and open containers — might become popular with smokers if the KC ordinance passes. Similarly, bars that can't easily accommodate nicotine users with new patios are probably right to feel uneasy.
But the debate could do without the scare tactics.
In an effort to mock the "Yes on 3" side's arguments about secondhand smoke, Nigro is making some ridiculous leaps. "How about staph infections in the hospital? Maybe we ought to close them."
How about we stop saying silly things first?
As an ex-smoker, I'm agnostic on the issue. But I'll close with a little rational advice for those heading to the polls.
Vote for Question 3 if cigarettes bother you.
Vote against Question 3 if you think the government has no business regulating the air quality in bars and restaurants.
Just don't let the fate of those poor single mothers influence you too much.