- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

Sales at Montgomery County bars and restaurants have slipped by as much as 50 percent since a smoking ban went into effect less than three weeks ago, owners said yesterday.

If the downward trend continues, they said they may cut back on the number of hours or days their establishments are open, or lay off workers.

Ira Levy, owner of Buffalo Wings and Beer in Gaithersburg, said his sales are down 40 percent to 50 percent since the county ban went into effect Oct. 9.

“It’s devastating, absolutely devastating,” Mr. Levy said.

Marcia Urbany said sales at her restaurant, Middlebrook, in Germantown are down by 50 percent. She said if the slowdown deepens, she may have to close the eatery once a week or lay people off. “My customers are going down the street so they can smoke,” Mrs. Urbany said.

Selby Scaggs, owner of the Anchor Inn and Blue Marlin Sports Grill in Wheaton, said during last Monday night’s football game, his restaurants made $250 in sales, down from $1,200 the establishments earned on a game night before the ban was put into place.

“I’ve lost a strong regular base of people who aren’t staying as long,” he said. “I spent $350,000 on the sports bar and it’s going down the tubes because a politician believes he can tell me how to run my business. … [Politicians] have no idea what it’s like to run a restaurant.”

Restaurant advocates who have been fighting the ban since county officials approved it this summer said all they want is an equal playing field that makes smoking illegal at all bars, including those in towns and cities within the county. Mr. Scaggs said most of his customers began going to bars in Rockville, Gaithersburg or the District soon after the ban took effect.

Supporters of the ban said restaurant owners have no proof that the ban has affected their sales.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said the county needs time to study the effects the ban may have on business, but that he didn’t expect the trend to be any different in Montgomery County than it is in other areas, where business actually increased after a smoking ban, he said.

“Clearly, we don’t want to drive out business in the county,” Mr. Duncan said.

Mr. Duncan, a Democrat, said he thinks Rockville and Gaithersburg should enact the ban. “They need to join with the rest of the county,” said Mr. Duncan, who “smokes an occasional cigar.”

Montgomery County’s ban doesn’t apply to municipalities such as Gaithersburg, Kensington or Rockville, where restaurant owners said they have reaped benefits from the county ban.

Robert Dinh, manager of the Orange Ball Billiards Cafe in Rockville, said business is booming because of the disparity.

“We have reaped a lot of benefits from the ban. … But if the ban goes, it will affect us. [The District] is right down the street. People wouldn’t mind driving,” Mr. Dinh told the Associated Press.

But that could soon change.

Rockville’s council has proposed its own smoking ban to bring the city into line with the county ban that has prompted some smokers to patronize city establishments where smoking is still allowed.

A public hearing on the ban is scheduled for Nov. 13. The city could adopt the legislation as early as Nov. 17, after the Nov. 4 council and mayoral elections, city officials said yesterday.

The D.C. Council is considering a similar ban for the workplace.

D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, introduced a workplace smoke-free law the council will consider in coming months.

“We’re feeling good about what’s happened in Montgomery County,” Mr. Fenty said. A hearing will be held in December and the council will vote a few months later, he said.

Mr. Fenty predicted that within 20 years, the entire country will be smoke-free. “We’re a small part of what’s been a much bigger trend,” he said.

More than 125 cities — including Boston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco — have imposed smoking bans similar to the one in Montgomery County.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland predicted that business for bar and restaurant owners could get worse before it gets better.

Melvin Thompson, the association’s vice president of government relations, said restaurants are noticing a 30 percent to 50 percent dip in sales since the ban went into effect. He worried some of the smaller operators in the county “may not survive.”

The association and a group of restaurants have sued the county. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for March.

Montgomery County Community Partnership Executive Director Doug Tipperman said the ban is a public health issue.

“Secondhand smoke is considered one of the leading causes of preventable death in this county,” Mr. Tipperman said. An estimated 53,000 people die each year from secondhand smoke nationwide, he said.

Owners said they haven’t yet seen any new nonsmoking customers patronizing their businesses.

“The fact you can smoke in bars in Kensington, Rockville and Gaithersburg has dramatically reduced our bar business by close to 30 percent,” said Alan Pohoryles, an owner of Tommy Joe’s Restaurant in Bethesda. “If it was a level playing field, I would have no problem.”

Mr. Duncan said 77 percent of establishments prohibited smoking before the ban was enacted.

Mr. Thompson took issue with Mr. Duncan’s statement. “If that’s true, what did we need the legislation for?” he asked.

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