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Smoked Out: A look at the first month of a smoke-free Oregon 

On the last Friday afternoon of January - which happens to be an unusually warm one - about a dozen folks are lined up at

click to enlarge : At the D and D Club the drinks are still stiff, but the smoke is just a memory.
  • : At the D and D Club the drinks are still stiff, but the smoke is just a memory.
On the last Friday afternoon of January - which happens to be an unusually warm one - about a dozen folks are lined up at the bar and scattered around the tables of the M&J Tavern on Greenwood. The scene probably would have been the same a year ago. Sports highlights flash across the flat-screen television mounted above the bar as peanuts are consumed steadily and the shells tossed freely to the concrete floor. But what's absent is the smoky haze that once hung around the ceiling of the Greenwood Avenue tavern.

It's been a month since Oregon, like more than 20 states before it, extended a ban on workplace smoking to include previously exempt establishments like bars and bowling alleys. The measure, which was passed by the Oregon Legislature more than a year and a half ago but just took effect on January 1, is a step forward for Oregon's tobacco control reputation, but public health and anti-tobacco organizations say the state has a long way to go.

Not everyone is on board with the state's proactive steps. The new law has plenty of detractors, including smoker's "rights" advocates and many bar owners who feared it would drive customers away. Rick Whittemore is one of them.

Just past a row of video lottery machines and a rare cigarette vending machine, M&J owner Whittemore sits at his desk surrounded by what appear to be several years worth of promotional material from beer and liquor companies and reflects on his bar's first full month as a non-smoking establishment.

"I'm not a smoker, but I think [the ban] is trampling on the rights of the smokers. If a business wants to allow smoking, that's their right," says Whittemore.

Whittemore let his patrons smoke up until the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. He admits there was some trepidation as to how the ban would affect business, but now says there's been no discernible drop in cash flow as a direct result of the ban, - other than the fact that his cigarette sales have been cut in half - but adds that the slumping economy is probably masking any changes that might be occurring. While he suspects that some regulars may have dropped off after the first of the year, he knows that those perhaps previously scared away by a smoky environment have taken their place.

"The main complaint seemed to be that you'd have to hang your clothes in the garage for two days (to get the smoke smell out)," Whittemore says with a laugh.

Across town at Cascade West Grub and Alehouse a bearded young man echoes Whittemore when he's overheard saying to a fellow patron, "Isn't it nice that you don't have to throw away your sweatshirt after you come home now?"

click to enlarge At the D and D Club the drinks are still stiff, but the smoke is just a memory.
  • At the D and D Club the drinks are still stiff, but the smoke is just a memory.
At the D and D Club the drinks are still stiff, but the smoke is just a memory. While this guy might need to familiarize himself with modern washing machines or perhaps the larger concept of laundry, he does illustrate a point that Chris Justema, the president of Cascade Lakes Brewing Co. (which owns Cascade West, among other establishments in the region) made earlier in the day. And that's that new people are going to the bars.

"We probably have the same amount of patrons. We see less of some of our smoking crowd, but also some new faces. So between what we lost and what we've gained, we're probably even," says Justema.

Aside from bar revenues, the ban is predicted by Oregon health experts to have a gradual but sweeping effect. Wendy Bjornson is the co-director of Oregon Health & Science University's Smoking Cessation Center and says that the most obvious result of the ban is less exposure to secondhand smoke. But she adds that there are other positive results that her organization suspects will come to light in the coming years.

"[The workplace ban] is actually a really good method for helping people to quit smoking. The surgeon general reports show that smoke-free laws tend to result in less daily tobacco consumption," Bjornson.

Bjornson says that in other states where workplace bans have been on the books for several years, cigarette sales have decreased, youth smoking is down, and the number of people who have either quit smoking or are trying to quit is up.

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Oregon's recent workplace ban, while obviously meant to have the far-reaching impact that Bjornson mentions, was ostensibly passed to protect restaurant workers like M&J bartender Desiree Prescott whose job placed her in a smoky environment for hours at a time. While attending to the entire bar on her own, Prescott takes a moment to say that after the first of the year she decided to quit smoking. Although not yet to her goal, Prescott says she's cut way down.

OHSU's Bjornson says that Oregon has been "innovative" when it comes to anti-tobacco efforts, but this innovation didn't keep our state from receiving failing grades in two of the four categories in the American Lung Association's State of Tobacco Control 2008 Report. Thanks largely to the smoking ban and efforts from folks like Bjornson, the state received an "A" and a "B," respectively, in the "Smoke-free Air" and "Cessation Coverage" categories. But Oregon saw a "D" for Cigarette Tax and an "F" for Tobacco Prevention and Control Spending.

Bjornson chalks these flunking grades to Oregon's ongoing budget problems and says that although the state has made significant anti-smoking headway, there is still a long way to go.

"The problem Oregon has had more recently is that the funding has been cut so often by the legislature because of our state's funding problems as a whole," Bjornson says.

But some of that recent track record was laid down during a time when Oregon, riding high on the real estate boom, was flush with cash, which included sending "rebates" back to tax payers. Voters have also played a role, shooting down the most recent effort to hike up tobacco taxes by voting against 2007's Measure 50, which would have raised the state cigarette tax by roughly 85 cents per pack. But only after tobacco companies spent $13 million fighting the proposed tax.

Meanwhile, the American Lung Association of Oregon (ALAO) has recommended that the legislature increase the current $1.18 per pack tax by at least 60 cents - putting it up near two dollars. This is aimed, according to the ALAO, at increasing funds for tobacco prevention and education programs. Oh, and remember that cigarette vending machine at the M&J? The ALAO hopes the state government will eliminate the machines, which they say "entice young adults to smoke."

There's another player wringing its hands on the sidelines to see what happens as a result of the smoking ban and that's the Oregon lottery. Video lottery machines seem almost requisite in Oregon's drinking establishments and perhaps doubly so for bars that allowed smoking. Mary Loftin, a spokesperson for the Oregon Lottery says that it's too early to tell if the smoking ban has affected lottery revenue. And any change to the lottery has an effect on the state as a whole considering that Oregon's lottery program tosses a hefty amount of cash to the state with past annual sales of more than a billion dollars and profits upwards of $600 million.

"Yes, our sales are down, but because of the recession we don't know what part is the recession and what is the smoking ban," Loftin says, adding that the widespread winter storms before and during the Christmas holiday kept people at home, adding to these slumping sales.

Loftin says that anecdotally it was known that smokers tended to play the video machines more frequently, but adds that the smoking ban could potentially lead to increased play on Oregon's roughly 12,000 machines - 1,500 of which are located east of the Cascades. Video lottery players not only contribute money to the state, but also to the establishments where they play, considering that part of the sales from the games go to the business.

"Even though the folks who did smoke while they played might not play as much, we do know that we are getting new players-people who weren't going into those places before," Loftin says, referring to newly smoke-free establishments. But she does reinforce that much of the state's research at this point is anecdotal.

Bar owners are keeping a close eye on their businesses as the first year of the ban plays out. But even skeptics like Whittemore acknowledge that while the smoke might be gone, the sky isn't falling - yet.

"There's people who say they won't come back if we don't have smoking, but where are they going to go? There's no smoking anywhere - it's a level playing field," Whittemore says.


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