News Story

Victims of Smoking Ban Cut Off Politicians

Lawmakers no longer welcome in bars and restaurants hurt by state smoking policy

Small bar owners angered over losing their butts to the statewide indoor smoking ban plan to give lawmakers the boot.

A newly formed group, Protect Private Property Rights in Michigan (PPPRM), has organized an effort to ban lawmakers from their establishments in protest against Michigan's smoking ban. This lawmaker ban is scheduled to start Sept. 1. PPPRM, which claims to have a membership of about 500 businesses, argues that the smoking ban has been disastrous for Michigan's small bar owners and their employees.

“We're not smoking advocates or advocates for tobacco use,” PPPRM Executive Director Stephen Mace said. “We 're just people who believe in private property rights and are trying to speak out against this law that's hurting us and our employees. It has already put some of us out of business.”

According to Mace, participating bars are being provided with photos of local lawmakers so they can identify them if they enter their establishments. However, the governor, lieutenant governor, House speaker and Senate majority leader will be exempt from the ban.

“We'll let the top officials in to symbolize how the ban hurts the little guys but not big guys,” Mace explained. “That would be consistent with smoking ban. We're trying to keep a sense of humor even though things are looking pretty grim. I think you'll see a lot of creative approaches as this goes forward.”

Capitol Confidential asked Mace if he considers those negatively affected by the smoking to be victims.

“Absolutely,” Mace said. “Actually the term ‘smoking ban victims’ was coined in Ohio about the ban down there. But at least in Ohio the ban was done through a vote of the people. Here in Michigan they just did it to us.”

“And understand this: The very first people to become victims of the ban were the employees,” Mace continued. “They're the ones who were the first to lose jobs. Then some of the businesses themselves were forced to close their doors. Those on the other side of this issue try to say it's just the overall bad economy. That's just not so.”

The idea of small bars denying entry to lawmakers isn't designed to force an end to the smoking ban by withholding beer and liquor from state representatives and senators. It's  primarily aimed at calling attention to the plight of the small businesses that have been injured, some destroyed, due to the smoking ban.

“We are the little guys,” Mace said. “We're not big enough to pay lobbyists and have parking spaces up by the Capitol. Many of us can't afford to stay in an association. When money starts getting this short, you just can't spend it that way. Businesses like ours used to give donations to local events and for local sports. We can't even afford to do that anymore.”

PPPRM claims that the smoking ban has already cost the state more than $200 million in lost revenue. That figure could go up. According to Mace, the group has barely started the task of compiling data on the overall impact of the law.

He cited recent testimony by Michigan Lottery Commissioner Scott Bowen on June 8 that the smoking ban has cut into lottery revenues from Club Keno, which is played in bars and restaurants throughout the state.

In the debate that led up to the December 2009 passage of the smoking ban, proponents of the ban claimed it wouldn't hurt businesses. A widely referred-to study at the time (paid for by smoking ban proponents) supposedly showed that the ban wouldn't cause economic damage.

In spite of these claims, as many had expected, after the ban went into effect negative impacts were soon to follow. Regular customers who were smokers stopped showing up, resulting in the loss of profits or the loss of thin plus-side margins that had been keeping the bars from going under. Employee layoffs and actual business closings followed.

“I've learned a lot in recent months,” Mace said. “For one thing, I've learned that there is evidence that national anti-smoking groups have less to do with fighting cancer, and more to do with making money.”

Mace references a recent paper calling to question the motives of the American Cancer Society. The paper was authored by Samuel S. Epstein M.D., chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition and professor emeritus at the Illinois University of Public Health.

In mid-September the Republicans are holding a policy conference on Mackinac Island. Typically the bars on the “Island” will be busy and bulging with lawmakers. But Mace said he did not believe the establishments on Mackinac Island would be participating in the lawmaker ban.

“We have some people up there who will be sympathetic to our position,” Mace said. “But when you're talking about Mackinac Island, you're talking about the tourist industry. I'd be surprised if any of those bars participated in our ban. They only have about five months out of every year to do business. They really aren't the kinds of businesses that are in our group.”

However, Mace said the comparison with Mackinac Island businesses does illustrate one of the points his group is trying to make.

“You just can't say that all bars and restaurants are the same,” Mace said. “I think part of what happened in Lansing was the larger quick-in and quick-out restaurants ended up being represented more than businesses like ours. We tend to have more regular customers who typically come in and stay longer and come back the next day.”

In Lansing the Michigan Restaurant Association (MRA) and the Michigan Licensed beverage Association (MLBA) both opposed the ban. However their position was that, whatever the legislature did, it should not try to sort out (or segregate) certain types of bars and restaurants from others. If there was going to be a smoking ban, it would have to affect all the establishments in the same way.

“We were opposed to any attempt to try to segregate the industry,” Lance Binoniemi, MLBA executive director, told Capitol Confidential. “You can't just sit down and say this restaurant or bar should be included, but this other one shouldn't. We were also opposed to excluding the casinos.”

At the time, many Lansing insiders believed the Detroit casino issue would prevent the smoking ban from passing. Native American casinos aren't under Michigan jurisdiction, and the state can't ban smoking in those establishments. With Detroit casinos competing with the Native American casinos, it was believed Detroit lawmakers would help block a smoking ban. But the hopes of smoking ban opponents were dashed when smoking ban proponents finally agreed to exempt the Detroit casinos. When that happened, the votes materialized and the legislation passed.

Few, if any, of the bars associated with the PPPRM are members of the MRA. However, it’s likely some MLBA member businesses are in the new group. What's more, Mace contends that more than just the “about 500” member bars are going to participate in the lawmaker ban.

Binoniemi said Tuesday that his group is not supporting the lawmaker ban, although it is sympathetic with the small bar owners.

“Our approach is different,” Binoniemi  said. “We'd recommend that bar owners educate their representatives and senators about how they're suffering under the ban. They need to tell them about how this is hurting them and their employees.”

Other states with smoking bans in place are considering legislation to modify their bans. Nevada has gone the furthest. It ended its ban as it applied to businesses that only sell alcoholic beverages, and has carved out exceptions for other businesses.

In Michigan, a handful of lawmakers have either introduced or talked about introducing legislation to modify Michigan's ban. The most aggressive of these would be a measure to create a smoking-on-premises permit. Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) is expected to introduce the legislation soon.

“We're supporting that legislation,” Binoniemi  said. “It would be similar to a liquor license approach.”

Capitol Confidential suggested the McBroom bill might stand a chance of passing in the House, but probably not in the Senate.

“At least it could get the conversations started,” Binoniemi said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Doug Geiss (D-Taylor) and Rep. Tim Melton (D-Auburn Hills) have introduced legislation that would modify the smoking ban in Michigan. The Geiss bill is HB 4127 and the Melton Bill is HB 4447.

The Detroit Free Press has quoted Geiss saying the legislature should “revisit” the smoking ban.

Reportedly Geiss said: "Let's try to right this wrong and make it work for all Michigan."

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.