It's Time for Erie to Kick the Habit

Categories:  Features    News & Politics
Wednesday, September 7th, 2011 at 8:00 AM
It's Time for Erie to Kick the Habit by Jay Stevens

?I'm being proactive,? says Marty Schwab, the owner of The crooked i. ?I'm making this a non-smoking bar.?

He drops this bombshell casually in my lap at a high table in the back room of his bar, the room with the fancy draft beers written in colored chalk on a board behind a narrow bar top.

At the tables here sit a few groups of bar-goers waiting for a show to start at 10. Most are smoking. Out in the main room under the bicycles hanging from the ceiling and along the long main bar, patrons fill the stools, elbows up on the counter-top. Most of them angle their right arms up, with cigarettes in their fingertips. They're smoking, too. Along the tables on the side of the room under the bar's graffiti art ? most notably a pair of cartoon bloodshot eyes, one wandering up and away and adorned with a crown ? are more smokers. Out in front, on State street, clustering on the sidewalk or lounging on plastic chairs arranged in front of the bar, are still more smokers.

None know about Schwab's plans to go smoke free. At least, they won't until this story is published.

Down the block from The crooked i is the Vermont Tavern, a place that went primarily smoke-free (there's a smoking room in with the pool table) when the new Pennsylvania smoking ban went into effect. The Vermont Tavern had a good reason: they wanted to serve food.

But with its slightly older clientele dressed in pressed pants and clean blouses, the Vermont Tavern and its fresh air is the Yin on the 10th block of State Street to The crooked i's Yang. The Vermont Tavern serves oysters, fried brie, and hummus with lavash. The crooked i draws younger, hipper bar-goers. Think tattoos and square glasses, pork-pie hats, and soul patches. There's no food here, but lots of Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys. And smoking.

Ultimately, that's why I'm here. I want to know why people can smoke when they drink in Erie. Why bar owners allow it and fear its ban. I wanted to talk to Schwab ? natty mustache (they're back!), knee-length shorts, ear gauges ? and encounter defiance and an earnest defense of smoking. Is it a natural accompaniment to a bar? Is it the offspring of a hip venue? Do his customers demand it?

Instead, Schwab is putting an end to smoking at his place. Because it's unhealthy. Too expensive. ?I smoke too much,? he explains. Three packs a day. When the smoking ends, hopefully he cuts down.

And so, on October 1, there will be no more smoking at The crooked i.

In March of this year, GE banned smoking completely on all of its properties worldwide, including  Erie's GE Transportation. According to a 2010 Erie Times interview, GE Transportation communications general manager Stefan Koller claimed the ban is intended to help GE employees ?make healthier choices that will improve their quality of life,? noting that, in part, the ban ?addresses health-care costs that have spiraled out of control.?

Before opting for a ban, GE tried using financial incentives to get employees to stop smoking, including a $750 bonus for employees who pledged to quit smoking along with a reduction in employee insurance payments for those who stopped.

In an editorial written to explain the corporation's recent health initiatives, GE's chief medical officer, Dr. Robert Galvin, linked a workplace smoking ban to better employee health. ?People spend more of their hours at work than anywhere else and are influenced by the culture of their organization,? wrote Galvin, ?we have an opportunity to support the health of our employees and their families by creating healthier workplaces.?

Both Koller and Galvin admitted that health-care costs are driving GE's new health policies, Galvin going so far as to say that ?50 percent of health problems and costs are related to lifestyle factors? such as smoking and obesity. GE's anti-smoking initiatives, then, are cost-cutting measures, a way to trim on healthcare benefits by creating an environment and work culture that discourages smoking.

Both The crooked i and GE are changing, moving ahead of the anti-smoking tide that's swept the country and caused dozens of states and urban localities to pass stringent smoking bans, and limiting the amount that tobacco products are used in public places. It makes sense ? smoke is unhealthy and obtrusive. Bans limit the exposure of non-smokers to toxic cigarette smoke and creates an environment that encourages smokers to quit.

But smoking still exists aplenty in Erie. According to a March Erie Times report, 28 percent of Erie County residents smoke, much higher than the state's rate of 22 percent.

So, why is smoking so prevalent in the city? Why is smoking still allowed in bars? How did this happen?

In 2008, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed the Clean Indoor Act, which effectively banned smoking from the workplace and public places. The law, however, allows for exceptions. Twenty-five percent of hotel rooms, for example, may be set aside for smokers, as may 25 percent of the floor at a casino. Cigar bars are exempt. So are full-service truck stops. And 18-and-over establishments with a liquor license whose sales of food is less than twenty percent of all sales. That is, bars. The crooked i.

These exemptions are not unusual. All told, 39 states have smoking bans in place, and most have exemptions, whether for tobacconists, casinos, private clubs, or small workplaces. New York law, for example, bans smoking in public places except for motel and hotel rooms, tobacco stores, private clubs, cigar bars and designated enclosed rooms in bars or restaurants for functions involving the sale and promotion of tobacco products.

One of the most stringent smoking bans was enacted by Montana in 2005. According to Montana law, smoking is banned in all work and public places, with very narrow exceptions, including Native American religious ceremonies. Basically, smoking is permitted only in private homes and cars.

In Montana, massive public support of a comprehensive statewide smoking ban forced smoking advocates ? most notably bar and tavern owners ? into a corner. Legislators working towards a ban in Helena threatened to bring the issue before the state's voters in the form of a state-wide referendum, knowing that upwards of 70 percent of state voters favored the ban. A compromise was enacted: a general ban would go into effect immediately, but bars and taverns wold have five years to prepare their establishments for an end to smoking.

?When 80 percent of the public doesn't like something, is really vitriolic about it,? said Mark Staples, the Montana Tavern Association (MTA) lobbyist during Montana's 2005 legislative session,  ?that's a hard thing to overcome.

?I would have people come up to me and say, I don't think it's right to tell someone how to run their business, but I detest smoking so much, I'm going to vote for this thing.?

?When the vote came, it didn't have anything to do with your constituents,? said Tim Dowell, the former Democratic state Senator who sponsored the Montana bill. ?it had to do with whether or not you were a smoker.?

The numbers were against the smokers.

So are the facts. Cigarette smoke is bad for your health, whether you choose to inhale it or breathe it unwillingly. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), cigarettes contain over 4,000 chemical components. Here are a few:

Arsenic. Used as a wood preservative, pesticide, and a WWI-era poison gas.

Polonium-210. The radioactive element used to poison Russian dissident, Alexander Litvinenko. If you smoke a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes a day, notes the AHA, you receive the equivalent radiation dosage a year as 300 X-rays. Only there's no lead apron for your nether regions.

Acrolein. Another chemical used in WWI-era poison gas, acrolein is used as an herbicide and is a suspected factor in the development of multiple sclerosis.

Formaldehyde. Embalming fluid.

Carbon monoxide. The toxic output of household combustion from cars, furnaces, water heaters, and the like, carbon monoxide decreases the amount of oxygen carried in your blood and increases the amount of cholesterol that lines your arteries, leading to increased risk of heart disease.

These are only five of the hundreds of compounds found in cigarette smoke that are harmful to human health. The only controversy surrounding smoking and health revolves around secondhand smoke. Everyone agrees it's unhealthy, but debate rages around how much exposure to secondhand smoke makes it so.

On one side, non-smoking advocates point to copious studies on the effects of secondhand smoke. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) refers to a 2006 Surgeon General report that claims even minimal exposure to secondhand smoke causes increased risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and lung cancer, and has serious repercussions on the health of children, including higher chance of ear infections, asthma, pneumonia, and bronchitis, and is a cause of sudden infant death syndrome. The American Cancer Society links exposure to secondhand smoke to breast cancer. Some studies found that smoking bans have had noticeable, positive health effects: in places as divergent as Montana, Massachusetts, and Italy, studies note a drop-off in deaths from heart disease, and in the European Union carbon monoxide levels in the bloodstream of non-smokers in areas with smoking bans was significantly lower than those that lived in smoking-friendly countries.

Smokers' rights groups, members of the tobacco and tavern industries, and advocates of conservative property rights maintain that the studies linking secondhand smoke to ill health effects are deeply flawed, especially in the claim that even minimal exposure to secondhand smoke can lead to poor health. ?...American's Congressional Research Service noted that only seven of the 34 studies then available [in 1995] found statistically significant health effects from passive smoking,? went a 1997 editorial in The Economist, ?and one of those found that the effect is positive ? i.e., that passive smoking is good for you. Of course, it is not really good for you. The real point is that its effects are so small as to be hard to pin down with any certainty at all.?

Even as more studies have shown since the late ?90s that secondhand smoke does have direct links to illness, no one is sure how much disease is caused by it or how much exposure is necessary. When the Institute of Medicine in 2009 convened a committee to assess the findings of the government's 2006 Surgeon General's report, it admitted ?the evidence for determining the precise magnitude of the increased risk ? that is, the number of cases of disease that are attributable to secondhand-smoke exposure ? is not...strong.?

Even so, the committee in its conclusion wrote, ?data consistently demonstrate that secondhand-smoke exposure increases the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks and that smoking bans reduce heart attacks,? and noted ?smoking bans can have a substantial impact on public health. The savings, as measured in human lives, is undeniable.?

?There were places I wouldn't go because of smoke,? said Montana's Tim Dowell, ?why should I have to do that? Let's say we make it my way. Who am I hurting? My not smoking isn't hurting them, it isn't hurting their health.?

Unlike Montana, Pennsylvania has no process for voter referendums or direct initiatives. Voters here can't change the state constitution or vote bills into law. That, in part, explains why Pennsylvania's smoking ban was much less comprehensive than Montana's even as polls showed over 60 percent of state voters favored a comprehensive ban, and why there was so much more drama around the bill's enactment in the Pennsylvania Assembly: anti-smoking activists had no way to circumvent the legislative process. Tobacco, tavern, and casino lobbyists had more leverage.

As a result, compromises were made. Besides the many exemptions for various smoking-related businesses, Pennsylvania's Clean Indoor Act forbids any local government entities from enacting a stricter smoking ban than what's defined by the 2009 law. And that bill was almost derailed by Democratic representatives for that very reason. Philadelphia Senators wanted its already-existing ban ? which included casinos ? to stand, and Allegheny county Senators wanted the chance for their county, too, to pass a stricter ban. In the end, Philadelphia got its exception, and Allegheny County didn't.

Smokers' rights advocates were satisfied by the result. They could live with having segregated smoking areas. The Economist: ?...the solution is obvious: where people object to smoke, restrict smoking to unbothersome places.?

In Montana, those that worked on its comprehensive smoking ban would disagree. They see their ban as an unblemished good. ?This is the most important accomplishment of my tenure,? said Dowell, the bill's Democratic sponsor.

For Dowell, the issue was workplace safety. That is, the workers in bars and casinos and other places granted exceptions under various state laws deserve protection from the dangers of secondhand smoke, too. For these advocates, segregated smoking areas aren't good enough. ?If the only job you can get or that you're good at is in a bar,? asks Dowell, ?why should you have to smoke to work there??

Pennsylvania anti-smoking advocates agree. According to Aaron Zappia, spokesperson for state Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) ? a key role player behind Pennsylvania anti-smoking legislation ? that's what spurred Greenleaf's Senate Bill 35, which would close the existing smoking ban exemptions for bars, casinos, and truck stops, among others. And the bill would also allow cities like Erie to pass stricter bans than called for by state law.

The bill is currently languishing in the state Senate Public Health and Welfare committee. ?It's stuck now,? admitted Zappia, ?but it may be inevitable.?

If passed, the state's workers would be protected from the risk of secondhand smoke, and, like in Montana, most public places would be smoke free.

Workers' health is not the only thing at risk in the debate around smoking bans. So are the industries that cater to smokers, such as bars and casinos.

While anti-smoking advocates claim that smoking bans might actually be beneficial to these businesses ? after all, won't all the non-smokers who are staying away because of cigarette smoke come and replace the lost customers? ? those that oppose bans claim otherwise, and the evidence seems to back their claims.

After Montana's ban went into full effect in 2010, bars and casinos saw a sudden drop-off in business.

?Now in fairness,? said Mark Staples, the MTA lobbyist, ?the ban started just about the time the country went into a financial nosedive. But this ban went into effect, and receipts went down 20 to 30 percent.? Certain businesses were hit especially hard. Rural bars. Casinos.

?The replacement customer did not show up,? said Staples.

In Montana, the hardest hit were the casinos. Gaming revenue dropped nearly 20 percent in the months after the smoking ban passed, and has stayed nearly stagnant ever since. And bans have caused hurt in other, unexpected places. Pool halls, Bingo parlors, and bowling alleys.

On the other hand, certain businesses prospered under a smoking ban. Most notably, restaurants. And while receipts at bars dropped noticeably immediately after Montana's smoking ban went into effect, sales had rebounded since. And bar and restaurant business is booming in places like Seattle and San Francisco where bans have been in place for years. It appears that once customers get used to the idea they can't light up at their favorite watering-hole, they come back.

Making Erie's Vermont Tavern a primarily non-smoking venue didn't seem to hurt its business at all. ?People didn't get upset about the non-smoking part of it,? said the Vermont Tavern's Abby Dinges, ?a lot of people actually seemed happy about it.? If a complete ban came and the Vermont Tavern had to close its smoking room, Dinges doesn't think it would affect business. ?People would go outside if they needed to have cigarettes.?

That's what The crooked i's Marty Schwab is banking on. ?I'm sure there will be a short-term effect,? he says, ?but people will get used to it.?

And if what crooked i patrons say is true, then he's probably right.

?I go to The crooked i because of the atmosphere,? said Christina, a Behrend student with a cigarette out in front of the bar with two friends, asked if she comes to the bar primarily because she's allowed to smoke here. ?It's generally a well-rounded bar. Smoking is a perk.?

?It's what you'd expect from a bar,? adds her friend, Mary.

Be that as it may, neither Mary, Christina, nor AJ perched between them would stop coming to The crooked i if smoking in bars were banned.

Making a bar smoke-free has advantages, too. For one, there's less mess to clean up at the end of the night ? Schwab is definitely looking forward to not having to clean up the ashtrays and stray butts he finds around his bar and on the street outside. For another, it makes the workplace pleasanter. ?I'm happy not to smell like an ashtray anymore,? said Dinges.

One of the claims that comes out of anti-smoking groups is that smokers cost billions in health care costs. The Center for Disease Control once stated that smokers cost over $90 billion a year in health-care costs, and again as much in lost productivity.

It's a powerful argument that depicts smoking ? and the effects of secondhand smoke ? as a taxpayer- and insurance ratepayer-subsidized habit. All the arguments against smoking bans seem a lot less potent if non-smokers are underwriting the damage smokers do to themselves and others.

But, according to a 2009 USA Today report, because smokers die on average 10 years before non-smokers, ?those premature deaths provide a savings to Medicare, Social Security, private pensions, and other programs.? Those 10 years of added life, of course, occur at the end of one's natural lifespan, and come with all the medical costs associated with old age.

But that's not the point, is it? The point is 10 missing years.

Ten years of life, no matter at which end of our lives' spectrum, is valuable. More than valuable. Priceless.

?When bands came to play here, they were like, what? You still allow smoking?? says Marty Schwab. ?They've been all over the country in front of crowds in places that don't allow smoking.? Banning cigarettes from The crooked i ? or any bar ? really, isn't going to stop people from coming out and seeing a kick-ass show.  

That's the thing. Banning smoking isn't an attack on civil liberties or free association, or any of those things. It removes from the public air cigarette smoke, thereby improving the health of all. And we still get together with our friends to raise a glass to good times.

Only now the air is clear.

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