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  • By Jeremy L. Bevacqua

When bars tossed the ashtrays: The economic impact of smoking ban is hardly clear cut

It has been four months since bars on Guam made the last call for cigarettes. On Jan. 1, it became illegal to smoke in all bars on Guam.

Whenever a new law goes into effect, there is always the initial uneasiness and apprehension to see how the theoretical applies in the real world. It is a period of adjustment.

Prior to the implementation of the smoking ban, many bars already anticipated this policy and thus constructed patios or areas dedicated to smoking, such as Horse and Cow in Tamuning. But there were places that continued to allow people to smoke indoor. Tower of London, a British-pub style venue in Tumon, was a widely known spot for indoor smoking. It was known as the “smokiest bar on Guam,” bartender Stephanie Andrew said. Now with the smoking ban, it has had the same story as many other bars that used to allow indoor smoking.

“It was bad in the beginning, back in January,” said Len Torres, a bartender at Somjaj Wild Bill’s II. “But they slowly came back and got used to it— and liked it.” A few of the heavy smokers stopped coming altogether, while others don’t mind “hanging out” at the smoking spot newly built outside the bar.

Tower of London also saw a decline in customer traffic in January, prompting its owners to cut back bar hours. But over time customers started coming back. Both workers and bar customers seem to agree that the environment is now much better to work in and socialize.

Although the only true way of telling the economic impact of the smoking ban in bars is to wait 12 months, empirical evidence indicates that the assembly of smoking customers outside the establishment hurt bar numbers. Stephanie Andrew pointed out that the requirement for these businesses to create outdoor smoking areas becomes another point of contention for bar owners. Large groups of customers — about up to 15 people — gathering outside instead of buying drinks in the bar represent potential business loss.

Juanita Garlejo, a longtime employee at Wild Bill’s, said the bar business has been a bit slow these days. She thinks it is due to the ban.

Despite better environmental conditions and customers staying loyal, the high rate of smokers on Guam just play too much of role. The culture of smoking is apparent on the island. Guam has the highest smoking rate in the nation — 27 percent of the adult population on Guam are smokers, compared to the U.S. average of 17 percent.

Smoking in bars is prohibited under Public Law 33-121, which amended the Natasha Protection Act of 2005. The law was named after Natasha Christine Leon Guerrero Perez, an Academy student who had a rare form of cancer, Osteosarcoma. Prior to the amendment, bars and other establishments that serve alcohol were exempted from the smoking ban, which covered restaurants, outdoor recreational facilities, elevators, public restrooms, transit stops, service lines and within 20 feet of entrances to business and government establishments and other public areas.

The ban in itself brings up a timeless debate in political science, which is the idea of personal liberty versus public health. Opponents of the ban said the state should not interfere in a personal choice. They further argued that the same line of logic should be applied to businesses that serve alcohol, and if the owners want to accommodate smokers inside their establishment, then they should have that right. Agreeing with this line of thinking, Gov. Eddie Calvo let the legislation lapse into law without his signature.

When the smoking ban was first introduced, opponents warned that the tough law would shatter businesses. Twelve years since the Natasha Protection Act was implemented in restaurants and other public places, its economic impact remains hardly clear cut. As for the smoking ban in bars, it may be too early to tell if people would adjust to the law, or will just stay home.

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