Smoking ban: each side presents its best evidence ?? and we check it out

As Minneapolis faces a July 23 decision to ban workplace smoking, which side has the facts?

Want to talk smoking ban? Meet Helena, Mont. and Tempe, Ariz.

The Southwest Journal asked ban backers and opponents to provide their strongest piece of evidence about prohibiting smoking in bars and restaurants.

Local American Heart Association representatives and other ban supporters say Helena provides some of the clearest medical evidence that second-hand smoke causes heart attacks and a smoking ban reduces such attacks.

Local bar owner Mike Jennings points to Tempe, saying economic data shows how smoking bans hurt business -- and city revenue.

The Minneapolis City Council was poised to pass its own smoking ban June 18, but voted to take a five-week break until at least July 23. It created a task force, including Jennings, to recommend new ordinance language (see Government News, page 6).

Task Force members will weigh a ban's health risks against the business risks. They will look at places such as Helena and Tempe and try to agree on the lessons learned from other cities.

Helena's heart attacks

Helena imposed a smoking ban June 5, 2002. A court order ended it six months later.

According to research published this year in the British Medical Journal, Helena offered some big pluses for studying a smoking ban's health effects. It is a geographically isolated community of 68,140 and only had one hospital, so medical data was easy to track.

Researchers looked at monthly heart attack (myocardial infarction) admissions from December 1997 to November 2003. They found a statistically significant drop in heart attack admissions during the smoking ban months -- from nearly seven per month before and after the ban, to four per month during the ban.

Three fewer heart attacks each month represent a 43 percent drop.

(The article passed the magazine's peer review process by in-house and external experts who may reject a paper for serious scientific flaws, among other grounds. The authors also disclosed the study's funders, including the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Society and the American Lung Association.)

The authors concluded smoke-free-workplace laws might be associated with reducing heart attack deaths, though they acknowledged the study's shortcoming.

"Helena's small size can also be an important limitation of the study, as the total number of acute [heart attacks] we observed was small," researchers wrote.

A scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank promoting limited government and private enterprise, criticized the study in stronger terms on exactly that ground.

"It is difficult to draw meaningful inferences from just a handful of adverse events like heart attacks in a small town over just a half-year," wrote Dr. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist.

Tempe as test case

Jennings, who owns three downtown bars, and Fine Line owner Dario Anselmo wrote Mayor R.T. Rybak June 4 to urge the city to take a go-slow approach on a smoking ban, "analyze the facts" and "find a more workable solution."

They pointed to Tempe.

Tempe's smoking ban went into effect June 1, 2002, the result of a voter referendum. Opponents have tried to reverse the ban, but could not get enough valid signatures to get it on the ballot, said Tempe City Manager Will Manley.

Tempe Mayor Neil Giullano wrote a May 29 Star Tribune op-ed piece applauding Minneapolis' smoking-ban initiative. He said the smoking ban didn't put any Tempe bars and restaurants out of business.

Jennings' and Anselmo's letter countered with information from Manley, who reportedly said, "categorically, the ban has been devastating" to businesses that serve less food than alcohol. Manley told them 15 percent of Tempe bars had gone out of business since the ban, and called it a "tragedy" for those who had poured their life savings into a business.

Manley confirmed those comments, but elaborated on them.

He said approximately five or six of 50 the city's bars and billiards parlors reported going out of business because of the smoking ban (10 to 12 percent). Tempe's current challenge, he said, is to support a statewide smoking ban referendum, so that city bars and restaurants aren't disadvantaged compared to competitors in neighboring cities.

Said Manley, "Although I feel sorry for those mom-and-pop businesses that were adversely affected, I personally think this is the wave of the future. I think that history will show that Tempe was a leader in an area of public health that the rest of the country is in the process of catching up on."

He added, "This is not a big issue in Tempe anymore. I know it is a big issue in Minnesota. We have definitely moved on."

Economic blow or blip?

The Jennings and Anselmo letter to Rybak predicts severe economic consequences from a smoking ban, based on Tempe's experience.

Tempe city data shows that sales tax collections from all restaurants and bars -- including restaurants that do not sell alcohol -- dropped from $7 million in 2001 to $6.7 million in 2002 to $6.6 million in 2003, a 6 percent two-year drop.

However, isolating Tempe bars serving more alcohol than food, tax revenue dropped from $1.4 million in 2001 to less than $1.2 million in 2002 to $980,000 in 2003. That is a 32 percent drop over two years.

"The good news is that sales tax figures don't lie," Jennings and Anselmo wrote. "The bad news is that the figures show that effect of the smoking ban appears to be catastrophic."

Plunging revenues could force an already cash-strapped Minneapolis to lay off more employees. Jennings has an October 2002 news account that said Tempe had to lay off 100 of its 1,700 employees because of declining city revenue. It cites Manley saying the smoking ban was one of the main reasons for the layoffs.

Tempe by the numbers

Manley said the news story statement attributed to him is inaccurate. He cites numbers that show the smoking ban did not contribute significantly to any city layoffs.

The city of Tempe has General Fund revenue of $126 million -- and the $400,000 drop in bar tax revenue from 2001 to 2003. Overall, Manly said, the ban "really doesn't have any -- not even a ripple of an impact -- on the Tempe economy."

Bar and restaurant tax revenue dropped because of nonban factors, he added.

The 9/11 terrorist attack and the national economic downturn have hurt the Tempe economy. Further, a major mall opened in Chandler, south of Tempe, is taking some business.

Monthly Tempe sales tax data suggests that more than the smoking ban caused the economic decline. In April 2001, bars paid nearly $152,000 in sales tax. One year later, April 2002, bar sales-tax collections dropped 20 percent to $119,000 -- two months before the smoking ban went into effect.

Said Manley, "The fact of the matter is, there are so many variables in terms of local economic activity that it is very difficult to isolate the smoking variable."

Tempe data also shows that the number of "Series 6" bars (ones that serve more alcohol than food) is generally up -- from 54 licenses in 2001, to 63 in 2002 to 78 in 2003, then dipping to 70 in 2004.

"One case, near where I live, there was a neighborhood tavern that had been there probably for five or six years," Manley said. "It went out of business after the smoking ban. Then it converted to a seafood restaurant and it is doing very well."

However, Jim Farrell, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, says it's easy to dismiss the consequences -- unless you are one of the tavern owners who goes out of business.