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Patrick Springer, Published June 16 2010

Study: Smoking ban has had little impact

The bars in Fargo and West Fargo did just fine after the smoke cleared.

That’s the bottom-line finding of a study released Tuesday that was commissioned by Fargo Cass Public Health and performed by the North Dakota State Data Center.

The study reviewed sales tax figures, adjusted for inflation, from the fourth quarter of 2004 to the third quarter of 2009 for restaurants and bars in Fargo, West Fargo and Grand Forks.

Fargo and West Fargo adopted comprehensive smoking bans almost two years ago, on July 1, 2008. Grand Forks’ comprehensive smoking ban will take effect Aug. 15, but was not in force during the study period.

Bars’ taxable sales climbed 123 percent in West Fargo and 26 percent in Fargo over the five-year study period, but declined 20.7 percent in Grand Forks, the study found.

Business at drinking establishments in both Fargo and West Fargo did drop, however, for a short period following adoption of the smoking ban, the study also found.

Sales fell more than 10 percent in Fargo and more than 15 percent in West Fargo between the second and third quarters of 2008, when the smoking ban was implemented.

“There wasn’t a long-term consequence,” said Richard Rathge, the data center’s director and study author.

It was impossible to look at individual bars, because of the confidentiality of sales tax records. But a survey of employers found there was a perception among employees of small businesses that the smoking ban hurt sales, Rathge said.

Policymakers should keep that point in mind, perhaps offering incentives to small businesses, he said.

Kurt Lepird, owner of the Silver Dollar Bar in West Fargo, said his drink sales dropped for more than a year after the smoking ban took effect, but began to rebound six months ago.

His tavern already had a patio, which helped, but he also expanded his kitchen, and his food sales have increased. Still, he had to raise his drink prices to make up for lost sales.

“Overall for me it’s been positive,” Lepird said, though he repeated that the smoke-free ordinance has been a challenge for small bars. He doesn’t dispute the health benefits of the ban.

Public health advocates said the study shows that smoking bans can make indoor environments more healthy without imposing an economic cost on bars, as many tavern owners fear.

A coalition backing comprehensive bans – SAFE, or Smoke-Free Air for Everyone – also is promoting higher state tobacco taxes in North Dakota.

The state collects less than $22 million a year from the tobacco tax, but pays out $442 million in direct medical costs and lost productivity, according to figures from the North Dakota Department of Health.

Public opinion surveys show strong support for smoking bans, which voters have approved in a handful of North Dakota cities.

Most recently, in the June primary, voters in Napoleon approved a smoking ban. Devils Lake will hold an advisory vote on a possible smoking ban in November, and Minot is surveying a possible smoke-free ordinance.

Last year, a survey of adults in Fargo and West Fargo found that more than three-quarters of respondents, 76.6 percent, favored the new smoke-free ordinances.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522