Restaurant revenue in Montgomery County increased in the six months after a countywide ban on smoking took effect, a finding that anti-smoking advocates hope will boost their efforts to enact similar bans statewide and in the District.
"One can clearly say the restaurant industry has not been harmed by the smoke-free restaurant law," said Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), who plans to release the figures from the state comptroller's office today.
Restaurant industry tax revenue increased by more than 7 percent -- almost $2 million -- over the six months from October to March, compared with the same period one year earlier. The county's smoking ban went into effect Oct. 9.
"The fears we heard that this was going to devastate the restaurant industry don't appear to be true," said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "These early numbers are very encouraging."
But restaurant industry officials suggest that the statistics are misleading, reflecting a pickup in the economy after a two-year slump caused by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the sniper shootings the following year.
"I hope smarter politicians won't be fooled by the inaccuracy of this data," said Melvin Thompson, vice president of government relations for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
Thompson said the sales revenue numbers are less important than alcohol sales -- often the most profitable part of a restaurant's intake. "It doesn't matter that overall sales tax has increased because that's mostly food," Thompson said. "Alcohol sales is where the profits are."
Claude Anderson, corporate operations manager of Clyde's Restaurant Group, said food sales at the group's Rockville restaurant have been unaffected by the ban but that bar sales are down about 25 percent.
"I've had one bartender go into the mortgage business and another go back to school -- it's just not the same anymore," Anderson said. "Everywhere else our sales are up, but in Rockville the bar business is significantly down."
Even so, alcohol sales across the county are up for restaurants, bars and other establishments that serve alcohol on their premises, according to the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control.
Alcohol sales increased by almost 4.5 percent, or $600,000, in the six months from October to March compared with the same period one year before.
The results in Montgomery County are similar to those in other jurisdictions that enacted smoking bans.
New York City had an 8.7 percent increase in sales in bars and restaurants after its smoking ban, according to the city's Department of Finance. Florida had a 7.4 percent increase in restaurant, lunchroom and catering service sales and no significant change in taverns, nightclubs and bars, according to a study by the University of Florida.
Smoking opponents say the results from Montgomery County will help their efforts to enact a smoking ban on restaurants in the District -- including in a pending legal fight to put the ban before voters.
A D.C. Superior Court judge last month threw out a ballot initiative to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, ruling that the measure would have lowered tax revenue and therefore illegally encroached on the District government's power to make budget decisions.
"This Court concludes that the restaurant tax revenues would be affected," Judge Mary A. Gooden Terrell wrote in her opinion, "since it was undisputed that prospective patrons would more than likely elect to patronize restaurants in Maryland or Virginia."
John Hardin Young, an attorney for two groups that supported the initiative in court, said the Montgomery County results throws the opinion's factual basis into question.
"She was relying on information that was popular myth that has been debunked by this data," said Young, who represents the American Cancer Society and the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. "There is no fiscal impact whatsoever."
A proposal to ban smoking in bars and restaurants across Maryland failed by a 6 to 5 vote this February to pass the Senate Finance Committee, but supporters vowed to push the measure again next year.
The sponsor of the smoking ban, Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery), said the data from Montgomery County will persuade the General Assembly to pass the ban.
"It's going to help a lot," Ruben said. "The opponents to the legislation try to make it appear the restaurants are going out of business -- but that is not the case."