South Dakota Bars and Restaurants Go Smoke-Free — Finally

Bar owners across South Dakota went fetal Tuesday night after a statewide smoking ban passed with 64 percent of the vote. Many seem sure that a smoking ban surely spells doomsday.

Fear not, South Dakota. In fact, I’m one of many customers more likely to go and spend my money at your establishment now that I won’t require a Hazmat suit to enter.

Most of the fear is anecdotal. South Dakota bars and restaurants offer video lottery, which has generated about $100-100 million in annual revenue for the state since 2002. South Dakota receives 50 percent of the money video lottery machines take in, so as soon as anything threatens their popularity, the immediate concern shifts to how South Dakota make up that money?

Let’s not jump off the ledge here. South Dakota is still South Dakota, and speaking as someone at prime bar-going age, business will be fine. What else is there to do?

When Minnesota passed the Freedom to Breathe Act in 2007, small-business owners and smokers alike thought it would put bars across the state in a chokehold. I tended bar at a high-volume college bar before and after the smoking ban went in effect. Anecdotally, I can say customers — even smokers — overwhelmingly preferred the smoke-free environment. In fact, I more frequently saw the same costomers on consecutive nights.

The Minnesota measure was passed to ensure employees are given a healthy workplace. A few weeks before the ban went into effect, I was forced to see an ear, nose and throat specialist after working four nights in a row. I had a wicked throat pain, which I thought was strep, but it was mid-summer, so it seemed unlikely.

“You must work at a bar,” the doctor said. “I see this all the time. You’re lucky that ban passed. I would tell you to find another job.”

I made more money as a bartender in college than in any full-time big-boy job I’ve held since graduating. I feel I was a good, hardworking bartender. The fact I’m not a smoker shouldn’t disqualify me or anyone else from working in hospitality. Every employee, no matter the job, should have the right to work in a healthy, safe, controllable environment. Accidents can happen — miners get trapped, firemen get burned, cashiers get robbed. Employers must take responsibility  to ensure these instances are few and far between. In that vein, is eliminating smoking really that difficult? If it’s protecting your employees — especially those who are on a company health care plan — isn’t it worth it?

According to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 17 percent of adults in South Dakota smoke. Last year, WebMD ranked South Dakota as No. 26 among states with the most adult smokers. At best, one in every five customers is asked to smoke outside.

Don Rose, a family friend and owner of Shenanigan’s Pub in Sioux Falls, was the leading voice of opposition to the smoking ban. His argument was that of a small-business owner who wanted the freedom to choose whether or not smoking be allowed in his establishment.

In a Monday interview with KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, Rose said:

“You take all, the bars in Minnesota are hurting, North Dakota are hurting, Montana are hurting. I get letters every day … I know that the state is preparing a budget they’re gonna be revealing in December that’s gonna show a 20 percent deficit in video lottery income. They’re planning on this.”

The elephant in the room is, of course, the recession. Name any sector of business that isn’t struggling right now. The other point of contention: Fargo and West Fargo are the only cities in North Dakota where smoking is banned from bars and restaurants. The rest of the state allows smoking bars. Finally, should South Dakota be relying so heavily on video lottery? If what Rose said is true, the budget will be short about $20 million from decreased video lottery income. That’s not a number to balk at, but hardly crippling to the South Dakota state economy. Yet, I wonder how the smoking ban — or smoking, in general — affects the cost of health care in South Dakota. Anyone?

(I completely respect Rose. As far as I know, he’s not nor has he ever been a smoker. He’s a very savvy business owner who only wants his rights left alone by the state. I get that. I also know he cares for his employees. I sincerely hope this doesn’t harm his business at all. I suspect it won’t.)

I swear, bar owners of South Dakota, your businesses will be just fine. Just wait for Thanksgiving weekend, when folks like myself return home. I used to despise meeting up with friends at the bar, but now, I’ll be the one leading the charge. I doubt I’m alone.

And please, don’t act like the smoking ban is difficult to enforce. In today’s Argus Leader, one bar owner said, “People are just going to stay home. The same thing is going to happen in the bars. I can’t see spending five bucks for a drink and then standing outside to smoke.” The same owner said she would tell a customer its illegal, but she wouldn’t call the cops.

If that’s the case, if a smoker is happier to stay home, maybe the problem isn’t the smoking ban — the problem is your establishment. And if you’re not willing to respect the law, maybe you should turn over your liquor license.

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4 thoughts on “South Dakota Bars and Restaurants Go Smoke-Free — Finally

  1. Smoking is not illegal — at least not yet. So why the hell is it OK for the state to tell owners of private establishments that they can’t allow smoking in those establishments? That idea makes me furious.

  2. Playing Devil’s advocate here, Mike, but I’d say for the same reason it’s not illegal for any American to breath in asbestos or coal dust if they want to, but states still require businesses to minimize their employee’s exposure to it.

    I’d rather see the decision left up to individual municipalities myself, but if I had to choose, I’d throw my lot in with Andrew on this one.

  3. Smoking bans are a simple and inexpensive method of greatly improving workplace safety, as well as employee and patron health. The government already regulates coal mines, automotive paint shops, and any other businesses where dangerous inhalants are a part of everyday working conditions (and I’m glad they do). Why should bars be the exception?

    Coal minors and asbestos removers work those jobs of their own volition, yet I don’t see a public outcry for repealing federally mandated health and safety protocols. The major difference here is smoking is way more prevalent/socially acceptable, and therefore there is way more backlash to smoking bans.

    I’m all for personal freedom, except for when exercising those freedoms directly leads to the harm of others.

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